Walmart Asks California Fire Evacuees to Vacate its Property

November 21, 2018

By Scott McDonald | Newsweek

Hundreds of evacuees from the deadly Camp Fire in California have been asked by Walmart to leave its property in Chico, citing health and well-being issues for those displaced by the inferno that’s responsible for at least 81 deaths.

The make-shift shanty town dubbed Wallywood — a name formed from combining Walmart and Hollywood — sprung up with evacuees sleeping in tents on a grassy area of the company’s property. On Tuesday, Walmart employees began posting signs that asked the evacuees to leave, shortly before rain began to fall. By Wednesday morning, many of the evacuees left, but around 50 tents remained and many Wallywood residents sill lurked, braving the elements.

“I’d rather be out here and catch a cold than be in a shelter and catch something worse,” Billy Elgen, an evacuee from Magalia, told the Sacramento Bee.

Though sanctioned shelters have been designated for survivors at churches and the local fairgrounds, many evacuees refused these shelters because of reports that 140 people have contacted norovirus, a highly-contagious virus that causes fever, body aches, diarrhea, vomiting and other stomach and intestinal problems.

Walmart finds itself in a conundrum between sheltering evacuees and looking forward to Black Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year. Still, the big box retail giant insists that asking evacuees to seek other shelters is more about safety.

“We continue to be concerned about the health, safety and well-being of the individuals remaining on our property and have been working cooperatively with city, county and state officials and local non-profits to increase capacity at local shelters and help create good temporary housing options,” Walmart spokesperson Delia Garcia told The Sacramento Bee Tuesday night. Garcia said the company has donated more than $500,000 to relief organizations.”

Garcia went on to say the area was expecting rain, which is good if for fighting a wildfire, but not living day-to-day life.

“The weather forecast from the National Weather Service showing rain beginning [Tuesday night] and continuing through Friday has heightened our existing concerns and increased the urgency to find a more sustainable solution,” Garcia continued. “We are asking the remaining individuals to evacuate the property and transition to more appropriate shelter.”

Most of the sanctioned shelters have food, beds and hot showers, like the one that just opened 28 miles away in Gridley. Officials from Butte County have encouraged evacuees at Wallywood to seek protective shelters. This is for better living conditions and, of course, a more accurate way to track evacuees and relay more information to them.

There have been county volunteers who have treked Wallywood to offer rides and gas cards to any evacuees willing to move onward to a sanctioned shelter.

Makeshift towns during a crisis is hardly something new. However, the image of Walmart could suffer a hit if it looks like a company that doesn’t show compassion in times like these, despite its efforts of donating money and providing some necessities.

Bob Phibbs is a national retail consultant who told The Bee that Walmart faces a dilemma with “no easy answers.”

“I would rather take the (public relations) blowback now than a month from now, when you’re going to put people out on the street before Christmas,” Phibbs said in The Bee.

A New York independent retail consultant, Burt Flickinger III, said Walmart should think wisely when deciding on whether or not the evacuees should stay. Flickinger drew a comparison to supermarket giant Pathmark letting first responders have its entire store near Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Walmart, like any retail leader, could use the goodwill,” Flickinger said.