The flames have long since died down, but Fiona Roberts, a high school senior, remains haunted by the memory of being trapped with her mother in a slow-motion race for their lives on the morning of Nov. 8, the day the Camp Fire swallowed Paradise.
Driving from their home in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the left-hand side of the road, they gasped at the pop of backyard propane tanks exploding and the sight of embers the size of butterflies swirling in the air. Their fear held its tightest grip as they drove through a wall of flames on Skyway Road, which leads out of town.
“When we got to Skyway it really was on fire and the flames were hitting our car,” Fiona said. “We were in it for about 5-10 minutes and our car got up to about 160 degrees. About half-way through, when it got light, my mom and I just started cheering — like we cheated death. I’d never celebrated being alive before.”
But the joy faded in the days and weeks that followed, replaced by anxiety and grief. Both of Fiona’s parents, who are divorced, lost their homes in the fire. She began having nightmares — reliving the terror-filled minutes on Skyway Road during fitful attempts to sleep. When the trees started shaking on a windy day, she would, for a second, see them on fire.
“I pushed those feelings down because I needed to be a rock for my family,” she said.
Fiona is among the more than 2,500 students in Paradise and its surrounding communities who returned to school this month after their holiday break, two months after the deadliest fire in California history killed 86 people and destroyed or damaged nearly 14,000 homes, as well as Paradise High and several other school campuses.
Destruction and dislocation wrought by wildfires has become commonplace in California and throughout the American West. But the totality of the loss in Paradise, coupled with the region’s geographic isolation and poverty, make the challenges facing the educators of Butte County unprecedented in many respects, according to experts in trauma and mental health interviewed by EdSource.
Like Fiona, many students lost their homes and nearly all of their belongings. Beyond homes, the people of Paradise and surrounding communities lost livelihoods, investments and gathering places. Students are carrying this trauma and loss back into the classroom and it will inevitably impact their ability to learn, say experts in education and mental health.
Most students will find it harder to concentrate in class than before, the experts say. Some previously well-behaved students will act out, while others will withdraw. Bearing the brunt of all of this will be teachers, administrators and school staff, including many who also lost their homes and are dealing with intense stress on multiple levels.
“One thing I said from day one is none of us are OK — let’s get that sh** straight right now,” said Matt Reddam, a marriage and family therapist who is working as a consultant for the Butte County Office of Education. “There is no template for losing three communities in three hours.”
Fortunately, say Reddam and others, officials mobilized quickly and made addressing trauma and loss a high priority from the beginning. The first gathering of Paradise Unified staff after the fire featured training sessions led by experts in childhood trauma.
In the weeks that followed the re-opening of schools in Butte County on Dec. 3, more than 200 volunteer mental health professionals from throughout the state traveled to the region and worked with both students and staff, said Scott Lindstrom, who came out of retirement to assume the County Office of Education’s newly created position of “coordinator of trauma response and recovery.”
Also, thanks in part to promises of increased aid from the federal government and the California Department of Education and grants from private foundations, including the Butte County-based North Valley Community Fund, the county office is bringing in more than 20 counselors on six-month contracts.
Long-term plans, however, are still in their infancy, Lindstrom said. “We’ve pretty much been in crisis mode up until this point,” he said. “We’re just now starting to think about creating a larger vision.”
What to Expect
David Schonfeld, who leads USC’s National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, acknowledged the unique aspects of the situation in Butte County, but said there are a number of things common to all traumatic experiences and responding with the right approach can make a big difference.
There is, he said, a tendency to focus too much on the trauma of the event and not enough on the loss, which will impact people in different ways and on different levels. A student whose home was spared by the fire will still have intense feelings of loss if her friends lost theirs and had to move away. The neighborhood playground might also be gone or the local dance studio no longer operating.
“School officials need to appreciate that it’s not just trauma treatment from an event,” Schonfeld said. “It’s restoring a community, which is a process and that can take years.”
Another thing to prepare for is delayed reactions. A core component of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is avoiding feelings associated with the event, Schonfeld said. As such, “most children who are experiencing adjustment difficulties after a disaster demonstrate no observable symptoms,” he added.
It’s also important, Schonfeld said, to be aware that children are reluctant to burden adults who appear upset themselves. Consider Fiona’s statement that she had to “push those feelings down” for the sake of her family.
“There is stigma relating to showing emotional distress, and even after a disaster the stigma doesn’t go away,” Schonfeld said.
Compounding matters is the fact that before the fire Butte County’s poverty rate and rates of traumatic experiences reported by children were among the highest in the state, Reddam said.
“When we think about what to expect from children, we have to be brutally honest about the conditions that existed before the fire, including high rates of addiction and poverty and unemployment,” he said. “A lot of the kids were doing well, but we also know there was a lot of trauma.”
Mike Lerch is on the front lines of this reality. He’s principal of Ridgeview Continuation High in Magalia, which borders Paradise. The school was destroyed in the fire, leaving more than 100 already marginalized kids in even more precarious situations.
“Almost 90 percent of my students live in poverty,” Lerch said. “A lot of them were couch surfing to begin with…it will be interesting to see how many come back and how we connect with them.”
What to (and not to) do
Each of the experts was quick to say that the needs of teachers and other school staff must be given equal attention as those of students.
“Make sure you acknowledge the impact on the adults in the system,” Schonfeld said. “Have supports in place for not only teachers, but administrators and other staff. You can’t expect them to just put aside the facts.”
He added that schools will have to change some of the expectations in the classroom for both teachers and students. Students “won’t learn at the same rate as they did before,” he said, and teachers “won’t teach with the same effectiveness.”
Lindstrom talks about how teachers and administrators are having to cope with differing levels of loss. “They’ve lost an entire career of collected curriculum and notes from kids,” he said. “About 50 percent of our students have come back — you’ve dealt with all the personal loss, and now half the kids you loved are gone.”
This is why it’s important for school leaders to avoid the temptation of saying that everything is OK when it isn’t or having a pre-conceived notion that the recovery will happen within a specific timeframe, the experts said.
Reddam sees success depending on district and county leaders creating a transparent and systematic approach that provides support to everyone.
“If we don’t create a system that is responsive to trauma and stress…the empathy will shrink,” Reddam said. “It will go from the world paying attention, to the nation, to the state, to the county and then just Paradise. That is normal, but it’s the worst thing if we don’t have the right supports.”
Fiona said she is not feeling nearly as anxious as she was in the immediate aftermath of the fire and is excited to be back at Paradise High School, even if it’s in an office park in Chico instead of the campus in Paradise where she spent the past three-and-a-half years. She’s also prepared for the fact that the people, not just the place, will never be the same.
“I have a friend who lives in Chico,” she said. “We went up to Paradise together the other day and she just broke down in the car. Even though she is safe now, she’s having a rough time.”