Credit: Barbara Munker/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Burnt out cars and a bus are removed from the roadside after the Camp Fire in 2018 destroyed the town of Paradise and surrounding communities.

For some students, the fire is only the beginning. The nightmares, the grief and an all-consuming dread can persist for months or even years.

That’s what teachers and school employees have observed among students in California’s fire-ravaged areas, especially Sonoma and Butte counties, where deadly wildfires have struck repeatedly in recent years.

Now, those school districts are sharing their observations and advice with schools around the West that are adapting to a new reality: regular catastrophic wildfires.

“What we learned is that any kind of disaster relief must have a mental health component,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

The county has seen major wildfires and a flood each of the last four years, and this week is enduring another major wildfire.

“Recovery doesn’t happen in a year’s time. It takes 18 months to two years to rebuild a home,” he said. “Meanwhile, the emotional stress and trauma is great, not just for students but staff, as well.”

Sonoma County Office of Education administrators, along with colleagues in Mendocino, Butte, Shasta and other California counties recently impacted by wildfires, created an 84-page guide to help districts navigate natural disasters. The guide covers everything from assessing damage at school sites to taking attendance to filling out disaster relief forms.

Addressing mental health needs is a priority, said Matt Reddam, school and community wellness advisor for the Butte County Office of Education. A wildfire’s prolonged impact on students, families and school staffs cannot be underestimated, he said.

“Unless you’ve been through a large-scale disaster, you don’t realize you’re not going to struggle a little. You’re going to fall apart. You’re not going to be OK,” he said. “And there is no panacea. You can coach the adults how to provide support in the moment, how to keep stress levels low, but it’s very hard. Many people here are still struggling.”

In Butte County, students had barely recovered from the 2018 Camp Fire — which completely destroyed the town of Paradise — when the North Complex Fire erupted in August and continues to burn in the mountains east of Chico. The sight and smell of smoke — even when it’s far away — has triggered anxiety and trauma symptoms among students who lived through the Camp Fire, Reddam said.

Counseling services implemented after the Camp Fire are still available, he said. But in the first chaotic weeks after that fire, students’ and teachers’ needs were a little different.

The top concern, he said, was students’ safety. School staff spent weeks trying to track down students and families who lost their homes. Working with local nonprofits, school employees collected and dispersed donations, fielded phone calls and helped families find food and shelter.

Schools also brought in dozens of crisis counselors. Particularly helpful, Reddam said, was bringing back retired school counselors. Local residents were reluctant to confide in strangers, and were much more comfortable with counselors they already knew and who had also experienced the fire.

What teachers and counselors noticed was that it took about six months for some students to show symptoms of trauma, he said. Initially, many students were focused only on survival. But after that period subsided, there was a collective emotional crash.

Some students started having nightmares or suicidal thoughts, acting out in class, or withdrawing and becoming numb, he said. Many were facing multiple traumas: loss of a loved one, loss of home, loss of community and the terror of fleeing through a fire believing they were going to die, he said.

To help, schools adopted a comprehensive focus on social-emotional learning: helping students relax, strengthen their relationships with teachers and peers and express their feelings. Hiring counselors specifically for teachers has also been helpful, he said.

Teachers also learned to look out for students who seemed depressed or withdrawn, using screening tools provided by the National Child Trauma Stress Network, he said.

All of these steps have been made more difficult by campus closures, he said. It’s harder for teachers to identify a student who’s suffering, because teachers can’t observe students in person. And likewise, delivering services such as crisis counseling is hard to do virtually.

But even for schools that are open for in-person instruction, addressing trauma can be challenging because not all students react the same way — or at the same time — to a disaster like a wildfire, said Catherine Mogil, clinical director of the UCLA Family Stress, Trauma and Resilience Clinic. Some students experience “normal” levels of stress, which can be difficult but temporary, and others are traumatized for months, or even years, after the disaster.

Much depends on the extent to which a student suffered during the event — if they lost loved ones, if they endured a harrowing escape, if they lost their home or pets, she said. Other factors are the strength of their existing family and social ties, and how well they’re able to maintain structure and routines afterward.

Talking about the experience is crucial, Mogil said. Working with small groups, teachers can encourage students to tell their fire stories, and frame the experiences in a way that emphasizes resilience.

“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is hard, and the treatment is not easy,” she said. “It’s like when you skin your knee. It hurts even worse when you clean it with rubbing alcohol, but if you don’t do it, the wound may be worse later on.”

Cameron Cervone, a high school senior at Santa Rosa High School in Sonoma County, has been evacuated twice from recent wildfires and has seen flames roar perilously close to his family’s home. After he and his classmates returned to school, they were grateful for teachers’ patience and flexibility.

Teachers allowed students to talk about the fires in class if they wanted to, and offered assistance for students who needed it. They also assigned less homework and slowed down the pace of instruction.

For students who had lost their homes, the relaxed atmosphere on campus was key to easing back into school and helping them cope with the upheaval and uncertainty in their personal lives, Cervone said.

He would recommend other schools facing natural disasters take the same approach.

“Teachers should be helpful and accommodating. They should work with students to get through it,” he said. “In situations like that, school should not be another stressor.”

Few places in California have seen more damaging fires than Sonoma County. Beginning in 2017, wildfires have killed more than a dozen people, scorched at least 250,000 acres and destroyed more than 5,600 homes. Some families lost their homes in a fire, only to lose their new homes in a flood the next year. Schools were closed for weeks at a time, and thousands of young people saw their lives upended.

Recognizing that students aren’t the only ones traumatized, schools have transformed into hubs of community support, offering help not just to students but to families, teachers and staff. Some schools opened after-hours wellness centers that provided mental health counseling, tutoring and other services for any student that needed it. Other schools became shelters for people who lost their homes. Several schools collected and dispersed donations to people in the community. During the fires, school bus drivers delivered supplies to emergency shelters throughout the county.

“One of the most important things we learned is staff wellness is just as important as student wellness. Because everyone in the community is experiencing the disaster,” said Mandy Corbin, assistant superintendent at the Sonoma County Office of Education who oversees mental health services.

After the Tubbs Fire in 2017, Sonoma County school districts brought in mental health counselors for students as well as staff; trained teachers to recognize signs of trauma and offer help when needed; and encouraged students and teachers to talk about their experiences and listen to each other. Schools also hosted social events, such as pizza parties, for people to gather informally and relax.

Corbin noted that the fire alone wasn’t the cause of some students’ trauma. Homelessness also increased after each disaster, as well as the school dropout rate.

In Butte County, school officials realized that the impacts of the fire were not isolated to the event. Not only did the symptoms of trauma linger for many students, but they resurfaced every time the sky filled with smoke.

“I think we all realize that whatever ‘normal’ life we had before is gone,” Reddam said. “That fire was not an aberration. We’re facing a completely new reality, and we have to start thinking about it that way.”

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