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Local group discusses bringing Camp Fire victims to Grant County

BY Emily Rachelle Russell - erussell@chronicle-tribune.com

Over 20 Grant County community members, including members of nonprofits, churches and schools, met Wednesday at the Clarence Faulkner Community Center in Marion to discuss ideas for inviting victims of the California Camp Fire to Marion and Grant County.

The 90-minute meeting, led by Grant County residents Richard Hart and Art Faulkner, with help from Marion Deputy Chief of Police Alex Kenworthy, consisted of conversations prompted by prepared questions. Attendees came from both the public and private sector and included individuals who have lived for years in Grant County as well as newer community members.

Topics included “What steps might we take to invite Californians whose homes were burned in the Camp Fire to consider buying homes in Marion and the other cities of Grant County?” and “Exploring a Framework for Joint Action,” according to a handout provided at the meeting.

People in attendance offered ideas on potential community connections and the roles various individuals and organizations could play in making the idea a reality. Action steps will be decided on once the suggested connections have been contacted and everyone has a chance to meet again and assign responsibilities on Dec. 17.

This initiative was prompted by Richard Hart, who has lived in Grant County for a few years. In 1971, Hart was working as a teacher in Belize when his home burned down. Friends and strangers alike stepped forward to help him. Now, he wants to do the same for victims in California.

“These friends put me on the road to restoration and a new normalcy,” Hart wrote in a letter included in the meeting handout.

Faulkner felt the first meeting went well and sees great hope in the new collaborative effort. He called the idea a “win-win venture,” explaining that Grant County needs new people to fill jobs and raise families, while many in California will want to relocate considering the danger and financial struggles of their current situation. He hopes Grant County can offer people seeking a fresh start the employment opportunities and options they need in their time of uncertainty and loss.

Hart said many homeowners who lost everything in the California fire will be paid by their insurance, allowing them to pay off mortgages and start over. While he knows many will choose to stay in their current home state, he believes many could benefit from a fresh start in a place with more safety and a lower cost of living. Even if only one percent of the victims were to move here, the new life that those people would bring into the county would be fantastic, he said.

As a retiree, Hart lives comfortably with the safety, affordable housing and affordable cost of living Grant County provides him. He believes many retirees from California would be happy to find the same qualities here. He pointed out that families with children would also benefit from the excellent schools in Grant County, including five high schools and several elementary schools.

After his experience in Belize, as well as experience living in Jordan and seeing millions of war refugees helped by churches, mosques and social organizations, Hart said, “I come with a consciousness that there are war refugees, weather refugees … and fire refugees. … When you’ve lost everything, you’re looking for a way to start over.”

Hart believes new residents moving into Grant County could help the county become what it needs to be — focusing not on the past, but on the present and potential future, supporting the new generation.

A more cohesive plan of action will be determined at the next meeting, Faulkner said. The meeting is open to anyone interested in being a part of bringing Camp Fire victims to Grant County. The group’s next meeting will be Monday, Dec. 17 from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Clarence Faulkner Community Center.