Four major themes emerged from the analysis: mental health as the dominant impact on the educational system, educational and healthcare impacts shaped by social vulnerability, critical role of educational and healthcare systems for recovery of socially vulnerable groups due to the interconnectedness of community components, and effectiveness of new communication norms and technologies for recovery. Below we elaborate on each theme drawing upon the results of the data analyses.
1. Impact of the Camp Fire destruction on the education system
The traumatic evacuation and enormity of the destruction affected both the young and the old in Paradise schools. 4,832 students and staff members were evacuated from the 13 schools in PUSD, amazingly without any casualties. The chain of extremely challenging experiences starting with the pace at which the fire grew, the delayed process of evacuation from Paradise, loss of 85 lives and near total destruction of the town, and a prolonged disruption of normal life had profound mental health effects in the short and long- term (Todd, Trattner, & McMullen, 2019).
1.1. Extent, complexity, and longevity of the mental health impacts in the education system
When the study participants were asked about the impacts of the Camp Fire on the education systems, the majority spoke extensively about mental health. The extent and longevity of mental health effects of the Camp Fire can be best understood by examining short and long-term impacts triggered by challenging experiences extending from escaping the fire to months of displacement and disruption of normal life at home and school.
On the day of the Camp Fire, schools started evacuation as early as 8 am, some after the school hours had begun and others sending students back with parents from the parking lot before they drop them off. Evacuation from the school buildings took place in a matter of a few hours, in school buses’, teachers’ or parents’ cars. Previous research has shown that evacuation experience depends on the location of the schools, and the routes taken for evacuation (Hu et al., 2017). Those schools located in the north of the town faced an extra urgency due to the direction of the wind and speed of the fire.
Paradise had five roads leading out of town, but the fire forced officials to close down three of the roads, leaving one exit towards the south and one towards the north. Most people used the south route to reach the shelter at Oroville and the evacuation destination at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico causing gridlock traffic (John, Lin II & Sern, 2018; Maranghides et al., 2021). Those who evacuated via the north route were able to do so faster. Even though teachers responded heroically to evacuate students in an efficient manner, the roads were congested with over 20,000 people trying to leave the town at the same time, delaying the evacuation by several hours and creating significant lasting trauma for those who experienced this delay (Kaplan, Yi & Domb Sadaf, 2018; Wylog, 2019). The comment below from an educator illustrates the long-lasting disparities in trauma effects from prolonged evacuation.
“Going South to Chico, and for the people that evacuated down, there's much more traumatization. There's much more. And for the kids that attended Ponderosa and Paradise Elementary, and were evacuated from those schools that burned that day, you can tell that trauma is much more severe.”
The immediacy and chaotic nature of the evacuation process from such a frightening fire left an indelible mark in the short-term, and for some students, for a much longer time afterwards. Students who evacuated south towards Chico had to sit through hours of traffic in the heat of the fire which left severe impacts on their mental health. School teachers and counselors shared some of those experiences and their effect:
“[you think] …You're not going to make it because with so much traffic…they were dead stopped in traffic. Many of the kids were feeling the heat, the car was getting hot, the tires were melting. So, many of them had to just leave.”
In the immediate aftermath of the evacuation, the teachers did an incredible job ensuring that each and every student was accounted for until midnight when the last student was picked up in Chico. Teachers and staff reported that the shared experience created an immense positive bond among them and students. This finding supports the concept of therapeutic community in disaster literature which explains that disaster survivors experience beneficial positive effects from interacting with those who help them during the emergency (Miller, 2007; Phillips, 2015). Furthermore, going through an exceptionally emotional and difficult experience together, escaping the fire, strengthened the social capital that existed before the Camp Fire among students and school staff. Participants were often emotional when talking about their gratitude for the successful evacuation of all students. For example, staff from different schools mentioned:
“Let's remember that our teachers are first responders too. They were responding before the fire, because the fire guys weren't even here yet."
“Kids were evacuated in teachers' cars together who didn't otherwise really know each other... they made a connection for life in the backseat of that car.”
“That kids are still wanting to be with their [old] school, friends and teachers. It's pretty amazing...they're connected.”
In a few hours, the entire community of Paradise was destroyed, with 90% of the housing stock significantly damaged or destroyed displacing most Paradisians to surrounding communities. Many months after the fire, people we interviewed were either dealing with or had students, friends, and family dealing with long-term disaster impacts and challenges such as displacement, temporary housing, overcrowding, insurance, triggering feelings of grief, uncertainty, fear, and trauma amongst other mental health challenges. Avoiding the conversations of loss became impossible not only at homes, but also in schools adding on to further collective fatigue and distress along with challenge of adjusting to all the sudden changes at school.
“The radical transitions ‑their housing, their family, their dispersal, their loss of their friends ‑… Just one disruption after another.... Their administrators have changed, their teachers have changed, their location has changed; everything is different and I think that's probably one of the most unsettling things for them.”
Given the magnitude of the impact and overwhelming loss across all areas of life, students started showing collective memories of the evacuation and fire. Over time, small things like a fire in a fireplace, smoke out of a chimney, and alarms in fire drills became extremely triggering for students, reminding them of the day of the fire. Most of the educators we interviewed were concerned about the consequences of even simple and common reminders of fire such as wind on the emotional state of their students as the comment below illustrates.
“Because that day is still very much alive in their head and they're still having problems with sleeping and intrusive memories. They don't want to think about it. Or, they have triggers...if the wind blows it can start kids acting out because it was a windy day. If the fire alarms go off because we're having a practicing drill, it can trigger them. If they smell smoke, it can trigger them.”
With the loss of their houses, most students had to either move in with extended family outside of Paradise or were sharing their home with relatives who moved in temporarily. Challenges created by these living environments such as lack of personal space or easy access to basic necessities, instability of housing, and stressful family interactions further exacerbated mental health issues among many students by adding to the accumulation of stress. Not only did this create disruption in living conditions and a daily exhaustion, but also affected their higher order functioning skills and academics. Many students could not focus on schoolwork. Interviews with staff, teachers, and counselors showed that many students were barely coping with the adversities around them even several months after the fire.
“As much as they're trying emotionally to recover, there's a lot of secondary concentric circles of recovery. Even though they may have recovered from that initial fleeing the fire—some of them, some of them have not yet—they still have to then deal with the secondary issues. The next wave...we have to find housing. Or, we have to move away. Now your dad has to find a job.”
“It's that higher order functioning that they are not able to really focus and concentrate as well as they once did. Math, reading, sequencing, those all become more difficult for them. Organizing is more difficult.”
Over time, the impact of this tragic event on mental health became more complex and differential for both students and educators. The effects were different across age and developmental levels in children and between students and educators. Counselors reported that the older kids were more prone to engaging in disruptive behavior than younger kids. It seemed easier for younger kids to talk about the fire than older kids:
“The honeymoon-we're glad to be back together-is not showing up anymore. It's now we have kids cutting class. We have kids mouthing off to the teacher, mouthing off to one another. That hadn't been happening, and I don't have an exact reason for that except that trauma has set in and they're really sick of living in the RV or now they have a new location but it's not their old location.”
“I think tempers are really short. Kids are really quick to anger. I notice in the older kids, the fifth and sixth graders, more groups that are kind of hanging together.”
“To me, it seems like it [Camp Fire impact] doesn't really register with the younger kids. They don't really think about it as much, unless they're asked about it. A third-grade class substitute a couple weeks ago had the kids all write a couple paragraphs about the fire day. Tell me what you did, what you saw. I was reading. Those kids all saw terrible scary things, didn't know where they were gonna end up. Some ended up in shelters or with an aunt three hours away. Nobody knew what to do.”
Schools were closed from November 8 – December 3, 2018 and reopened either by merging with other schools inside or outside Paradise or shifting to new locations setting up temporary schools. Temporary spaces were provided to students and teachers in surrounding communities of Durham, Oroville, Magalia, and Chico. Some schools had to move more than once, like Paradise High and Ridgeview High School. Paradise Intermediate School had a temporary location in a hardware store in Chico. Teachers, staff, and counselors from these schools noted that while reopening schools created a sense of normalcy, familiarity, and routine in the student’s lives, it was quite difficult to maintain discipline in the new settings. Teachers at Ridgeview High School, which operated out of the Chico Boys and Girls Club until June of 2018, mentioned several issues with noise or boundaries that they faced on a daily basis, and how it impacted both the teachers and the students. They also noted that Ridgeview High School was the last to receive a permanent site, citing a gap in recovery resources between the different schools in Paradise.
“The noise levels, everybody's kind of in an open structure now. It's a difficult learning environment. It's been hard to get into the flow for teachers or kids.”
“The Boys and Girls Club didn't really have classrooms. We were able to utilize their space. But our teachers, because they lost everything, they lost all the books, all their resources, we weren't able to get those back because we had no storage at the Boys and Girls Club. Basically, the teachers each had a bin for all their things that we had to put in a closet at two o'clock every day so that the Boys and Girls Club could run their after-school programs. Unlike some of our other schools that ended up [in their own space] and bought a lot of supplies and everything, we just didn't have that storage ability so we got pretty creative.”
The complexity and acuteness of the impact on mental health was not confined to children, but adults ‑ staff, teacher and parents ‑ alike suffered from mental health effects of the disaster. Not only did adults experience the same level of exposure to the fire as the children, but had to be present for the more fragile members of their families while facing complex and challenging tasks such as adjusting to a new job or home while dealing with insurance applications in the aftermath of the disaster. Some teachers in Paradise left jobs to deal with their personal and family challenges. Those who returned to work expressed stress due to housing loss and work overload with shortage of staff. Several of them were living in motels and commuting to work from far away distances, adding to their daily stress and recovery fatigue. Like the students, school staff also reported trigger symptoms reminding them of the quick movement of the fire and its aftermath. Several counselors mentioned impacts such as the following:
“The staff seemed really pretty fractured and shook up and people's lives were so chaotic. They were living in hotels and driving up here, they were camped in a fifth wheel on somebody's driveway. Their lives were very unsettled.”
“They're trying to rebuild their life and they are having to make phone calls, navigate the insurance companies, get rejections from the insurance companies, be told no they're not getting this check or no they're not getting this money, or they got to jump through another hoop. And, they're trying to do all of that and teach a class from nine to three with very little time to fill out paperwork, make phone calls, go do the business they need to do Monday through Friday.”
1.2. Mental health considerations in schools’ recovery
It became difficult and important for parents to decide if their kids would continue to attend their old school in the temporary location or attend a new school in their new community. The answer was not straightforward. On the one hand, students, especially middle and high schoolers, were extremely attached to their friends and teachers, and wanted to attend the same schools with them. In fact, some students who attended new schools in surrounding communities felt out of place unable to connect with others who did not go through the Camp Fire. On the other hand, commuting back to Paradise or Magalia for attending their old schools, now merged in different buildings, created emotional, cost, and time burdens from the kids and families especially those who were living in temporary homes far outside Paradise. Thus, parents had to decide if a long and costly commute through burned trees and signs of destruction was worth keeping the kids with familiar teachers and friends.
Despite the struggles of the temporary locations, the schools continued to provide a sense of familiarity and normalcy for students. Staff from different schools noted:
“Most of them are taking buses but they could be coming from upper Magalia, Chico or Orville, and I have students that are commuting up to two hours a day to get to school. Probably the average is about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, so when I factor that in, that again is another challenge for both students and parents both economically and time wise.”
“Even though there's a commute, there's still some real pride about we're back in our home ...the reality is there's a familiarity. And for some people I think that's one of the bridges that helps them overcome the distances and the other hardships because there's such a desire to have some sense of what is familiar because everything else in their life, if they've been displaced, is unfamiliar."
“I think one of the reasons why we see the numbers that we do is...the families try to enroll the kids in Chico schools and they came back, and I think it's one, familiarity of the teachers and their peers, but two, they don't really understand each other [in Chico]. You know, now these people [from Paradise] all share a common bond of a shared experience...how do you explain that to somebody else who didn't do that.”
Following the Camp Fire, PUSD responded to the mental health needs in the schools, hiring counselors using funds provided by the North Valley Community Foundation to the Butte County Office of Education. PUSD also reached out to non-profit organizations specializing in behavioral health to fill the gap of mental health needs in the schools. Several retired counselors also came back to serve the school district, often in a volunteering capacity, adding to the resource resilience capacity of the community. Part-time and full-time counselors from the schools and the Office of Education noted that without the volunteering retired counselors, addressing the needs would be impossible.
“Probably half or more of our counselors that we have now came out of retirement to do this work. So, without retirees the capacity to provide services would be almost nil.”
Despite all the local resources for addressing mental health issues, the disparity in mental health resources was especially notable in schools with higher numbers of special needs children. History of wildfires, like the Tunnel Fire, Humboldt Fire and Tubbs fire, and a significant number of Title 1 and higher ACE (adverse childhood experiences) score students in the PUSD had provided clear indications of a greater need for mental health resources in those vulnerable schools even before the Camp Fire. Nevertheless, the lack of behavioral and mental health services in the special needs schools created a significant resource gap after the Camp Fire. This clearly added to the stress of the staff working at certain schools, who did not receive enough support for their own mental health. The overwhelming loss in the staff’s lives created the need for different types of mental health support, the lack of which further added to the burden. For example, teachers and staff from one of the schools for the academically at-risk students noted:
“I cry foul because it's emotional support we should've had in place, especially for my kids at ninety percent poverty, at risk kids, we should have had this therapeutic counselor on my campus to begin with. We shouldn't be reacting this way because of this; we should have those systems in place to begin with. So, shame on us for not and shame on everybody for not having these emotional supports in place prior to an event happening. We need to be way more proactive on mental health issues.”
“I wish that we had more counseling for staff. And I wish that it was offered in varied formats, either onsite or offsite. Because when we polled the staff, some people were like I will only go to counseling if it's here at work. And then there were other staff who were like I will only go to counseling if it's available outside of work.”
2. Social vulnerability shaped various dimensions of the Camp Fire impact
Social vulnerability is the human dimension of disasters. Paradise is a uniquely appropriate WUI case study for illustrating the profound consequences of fires on vulnerable communities because of its high social and physical vulnerability to disasters. Social vulnerability is a multi-dimensional concept, dependent on both individual and community-level social and economic factors (Cutter, Boruff & Shirley, 2003). Paradise represents high proportions of residents with some of the key factors of social vulnerability: low-income and poor, elderly and children, and individuals with disability and fragile health (Flanagan et al., 2011). Marketed in the 1970s as a retirement community, Paradise became home to a relatively large number of elderly, with 18.4% of the population who were 65 years or older, and 12.6% of the population under 65 suffered from health issues or disabilities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Poverty rate in Paradise is estimated at 12.6% (DataUSA, 2018), adding to other aspects of social vulnerability like excessive opioid use (Cal Dept of Public Health, 2020).
In addition to social vulnerabilities, the average age of homes in Paradise is 43 years old, with a significant number of homes built before California adopted the International WUI Code in 2008 (Bestplaces, 2021). The overlapping physical and social vulnerabilities along with high exposure to fires as a WUI community magnified disaster risks that were realized through catastrophic and tragic losses when the Camp Fire ravaged through Paradise. Impacts of the Camp Fire on education and healthcare were shaped and exacerbated based on the social vulnerabilities of individuals, families, and groups that were served by or were part of these systems. Remarkably within this context of high vulnerability, Paradise schools and healthcare facilities played critical roles in providing stability and support for recovery. Hence, disruptions in these institutions had clear and compounding adverse effects on the lives of those vulnerable community members, and further slowed down their recovery.
2.1. Disparities in the Camp Fire Impacts exacerbated by vulnerability
According to a 2019 report by the non-profit Center for Youth Wellness, Butte County reported the highest proportion of ACE in the state of California at 76.5% (A Hidden Crisis, 2019). Some of these children either experienced violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessed violence in the home, or had a family member attempt or die by suicide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). The Camp Fire added an extra layer of trauma for these children, especially those who were unsure of their housing situation or where their next move was going to be. When asked about the vulnerability of Paradise families based on their pre-fire conditions, the study participants were unanimous in the view that life was challenging for many families and especially the children due to challenges with poverty, substance abuse or unstable living environments which put them in precarious situations when faced with the impacts of the Camp Fire.
“Ninety percent of my kids are in poverty...skill set for a lot of my guys is survival to begin with. They are couch surfers. Their families are couch surfers. It's kind of how they live.”
“There were already really high ACEs scores...families already had high levels of trauma due to generational poverty, sometimes generational drug use. I mean people lived here because it was a really economical place to live. You could live here with a pretty low standard of living...So I'd say it's that sort of marginalized groups... folks who were already struggling with poverty, that when they lost their homes or lost their jobs, had less of a way to get their footing underneath them.”
Such difficult pre-fire conditions made these individuals further susceptible to experiencing more challenges after the Camp Fire such as emotional distress, losing sources of income or shelter, overcrowding with relatives or friends, or separation from family members which made educational recovery extremely hard for these children. In particular, schools with a higher number of special needs students manifested a concentration of these vulnerabilities. Counselors and educators reported that the conditions of these children got exacerbated after the Camp Fire.
“People were probably working but I don't think people up here make a lot of money. Now, people are struggling just to get food, and clothing, and the day-to-day essentials. You know, am I going to buy propane, or are we going to buy medicine, or can we afford to buy new shoes. So, sometimes decisions are being made. I would say the population most at risk for the kids are those that really already were at risk are now more so. I think they're going to have a more difficult time recovering from it.”
“We have a lot of kids that were at risk before the fire. I think the fire just exacerbated it. So, it's like, things were not good at home before but now they're even worse.”
Despite the well-known pre-fire vulnerabilities in certain schools, Camp Fire recovery resources were not distributed with consideration of those disparities. There was a significant gap of unmet recovery assistance among different schools. Staff from some of the Title 1 schools said:
“Our school is like the black sheep of the ridge in our district. So, when all the publicity came out [… they] always left out our school. […] always left out our school. [The administrators] talk about all the other schools and it would be like, where's [School’s name]?”
“… the big comprehensive high school, has a football team. The whole community even when they don't have kids, they go to the football game. It's a big deal. Their school is a big deal. Our school isn't a big deal.”
“A lot of times the perception of [some] students is that they're the bad kids. So, I think that often they tend to get fewer resources because of that. I think that's a challenge. Although, we did get an extra counselor which has been really helpful for our kids. But we do tend to get, I don't know, seem to be the low man on the totem pole in a lot of ways because of the perception of who our kids are. I know that's not intentional most times, [but] sometimes it is. It's not just in the school district. A lot of the community feels that way. That just brings about its own set of challenges.”
These disparities find further confirmation when we contrast it with recovery resources received by other schools. For instance, one interviewee at another school mentioned:
“There were new coats, there were backpacks, there were blankets, there were quilts, there were stuffed animals, there were lunch boxes, there were clean canteen water because our kids had to drink from water stations for a long time because there wasn't running water that worked. There was just a wealth of gifting coming from all over the US and from different parts of the world as well...and there was a lot of discretion given to staff members to distribute them to families as they saw the need.”
Another critical dimension of vulnerability in the Paradise education system is the large number of children and youth in the foster system who lived with families that were inevitably displaced after the Camp Fire. Participants mentioned across several interviews that approximately 110 foster students lived in Paradise and Magalia out of the 500 foster students in Butte County. An organization called Youth for Change provided twelve beds to foster students before the fire in Paradise but their facility was completely destroyed. Following the fire, the foster children were left with no resources or homes, either with loss of housing at their foster parents’ or due to the loss of the foster agency shelter. Some foster parents who did manage to find temporary housing remained foster parents to these children. But a larger number of foster children that could not be supported by Paradise families anymore were transferred to new foster homes in other California counties, like Shasta or Bay Area counties. This shows unstable family conditions can create multiple layers of vulnerability for youth after disasters that extend from living conditions to education to health. One of the counselors noted:
“I'm actually dealing with a couple of students right now, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, who we have referred on for suicide evaluation…it's also the compounded effects to those kids because many of them are also either currently or have been foster children.”
2.2. Critical role of schools and hospitals in recovery of vulnerable communities
A recurrent theme in the data is that the role of schools in supporting students and the larger Paradise community after the Camp Fire went beyond education and extended into addressing issues that arose at home due to the disaster. For the socially vulnerable students, reliance on schools for some of the daily life needs was common before and regardless of the disaster. However, after the Camp Fire, schools became an important pillar for recovery, confirming findings of previous studies (Lai et al., 2014; Lai et al., 2016). First, the schools provided basic necessities, like food and potable water which were not easily affordable for many families after Camp Fire damaged the town’s water infrastructure. Second, the schools acted like free daycare for younger children when parents had to look for jobs after losing their jobs due to the Camp Fire. Third, the schools provided some relief to these vulnerable students from their rather unstable temporary living conditions after displacement due to the Camp Fire. Fourth, schools provided familiarity and normalcy on a daily basis to students by restoring some sense of routine and connection to their teachers and friends. Counselor and staff from different schools highlighted these essential support services:
“There's a section I know in Magalia [that] was a trailer park, but it was so substandard ... I dealt with kids who were living in a trailer with their mom, their dad, brothers and sisters in a twelve-foot trailer and that's what their life is. How do you deal with that every day and how do you get these kids to understand that, I understand it's terrible right now, I understand your life is not the best, but when you get here, I want you to feel that you're loved and you feel safe and you feel secure here. You have food here. We've got breakfast, we've got lunch. We'll get you a snack in the afternoon. Just something to give them some sort of, okay, there is something better than what I have to go home to. Because a lot of times what they have to go home to is not the best.”
Healthcare services in Paradise also played a critical role in supporting the community, particularly the socially vulnerable groups. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, when the hospital closed down due to extensive damages, not only the community of Paradise was affected, but also the vulnerable population from the surrounding communities who travelled to the hospital to avail discounted healthcare facilities. Adventist Health was reputed for their non-profit Christian mission of serving people in need, and their role in serving the community by free medical services, subsidized community healthcare, and aid to the poor and elderly (Adventist Health). The low-income community in Paradise had substantially higher rates of drug issues like heroin, but discounted healthcare through MediCal and Adventist Health helped them access the necessary medical services at the Feather River Hospital before the fire as noted by our interviewees.
“Our prime service area was probably the Paradise and Magalia...Our secondary service area would have been Oroville, Chico, and some of the surrounding areas like Gridley and others because we do serve more of the low-income MediCal, Medicaid patients. And often they have a hard time accessing care in a lot of places especially for specialty care, so we had a very large patient population here.”
“[community benefit] It's something we really cater to and it’s part of our mission. And so, we're not walking away from that, … I think it’s also a huge need, because if those patients have gone other places, or have left they may have challenges with health care. Which is again, why we're seeing a lot of people who are willing to commute if they are still kind of in the greater area within an hour drive, but they're driving because they, you know, can't go anywhere else.”
In the months following the Camp Fire, recovery of hospital services proved essential for the return of residents to the community. Right after the fire, when the hospital and clinic had to close down, volunteer medical services were provided by local nurses (Meyers, 2019). However, with various services of the Feather River hospital relocated to surrounding communities, and no guarantee that the hospital would reopen in its pre-fire capacity or rebuild, there was a critical question regarding the long-term recovery of medical services for the vulnerable population (Colliver, 2019). Employees in the hospital who lost their jobs and several doctors from the clinic moved to surrounding towns to work in other facilities or their private healthcare practices (Urseny, 2019). One year later, in October 2019, the State of California passed Senate Bill 156 allowing a free-standing emergency room (Epley, 2019) which led to reopening of the only emergency care facility in Paradise after the fire and making it a symbolic ‘piece of healing’ (Adventist Health Feather River, 2020; Epley, 2019).
3. Interconnectedness of community components
After the fire, several interdependent factors became crucial in determining both the extent of impacts and recovery of the education and healthcare services.
3.1. Interconnected disaster impacts
Examining impacts of the Camp Fire on various individual dimensions of schools and healthcare systems revealed that many components were affected by the impacts of another component or whole other systems. The interconnections of the impacts become prominent when we look at the impacts across various sectors of Paradise, particularly across housing, utilities, businesses, education, healthcare, and community organizations. With the fire destroying 90% of the housing stock in Paradise, people were not only displaced from their homes, but were also forced to find temporary homes in other communities, miles away from Paradise. Therefore, displacement extended beyond loss of home to loss of community for most of the Paradisians.
Those families who could not afford to move to surrounding towns or other states ended up in a worse mental and financial condition because many of them started sharing temporary housing with relatives leading to overcrowding or lived in trailers on their land surrounded by the burnt landscape day in and day out uncertain about for how much longer they are allowed to stay on their land (Epley, 2019; Vitale, 2020). In the long-term, residents were only allowed to live in RVs on their property if they were rebuilding (makeitparadise, 2020).
For both students and educators, performance at school was compromised due to the difficulties related to the Camp Fire housing impacts including displacement, uncertainty and low quality of the temporary housing as well as the Camp Fire employment impacts including loss of job and income in the family. Educators in various capacities at Paradise schools emphasized these interconnected impacts highlighting their magnitude with a context of high socioeconomic vulnerability:
“One of my students I took home the other day because he was really sick and his mom wasn't available. He's living with ten people in two little trailers on their property. So, the biggest impact, and we have quite a few students that are sleeping at other kids' houses because they don't have a place to stay.”
“What teachers are seeing with kids is their capacity to stay focused is limited, their capacity to take work home and do homework is limited both in terms of the physical ability to have a space to do the work and also in terms of their mental capacity to remember how to do it or remember to do it at all once they get home...a lot of people are calling it fire brain. Basically, that trauma has continued to impact them that way, so, the academics become really difficult for these kids.”
“You can only imagine if you've lost your house, you've lost your car, and yet you're having to return to work how difficult that has been for our staff. They've had to return back up here. Many of them describe driving back up the Skyway through the devastation has been a traumatization every time they've had to drive back. So, they start their day, every day, reliving that experience and then kind of having to try to pull it together to teach.”
The displacement of residents also affected businesses. Even if the structure was not burnt, there were not enough people to employ or serve as customers, and most of the businesses had to close down or move from Paradise. Several school and healthcare staff shared these concerns about businesses:
“What we are hearing from local businesses is that their primary concern is that they are unable to retain and recruit people because of the challenges for finding housing.”
“We had a small, but thriving business community with sales tax that helped fund [some of the public services], so we've lost most of our businesses. There's a fair amount that have returned or are operating elsewhere. That sales tax implication is huge.”
Paradise also suffered insurmountable losses with regards to its utilities, specifically electricity and water services. The fire caused damage to the water distribution system making the water within the system unsafe for drinking. Seventeen months after the fire, Paradise Irrigation District (PID) changed its water advisory declaring water safe for those who followed regulations for testing and rebuilding, but still undrinkable for those with interim temporary permits (Paradise Post, 2020). This directly affected the businesses, schools, and the healthcare facilities that could not operate without utilities even if they had not sustained structural damages (McGinty et al., 2021). Consequently, unscathed businesses like restaurants and grocery stores had to remain closed due to lack of safe water. The reopening of healthcare facilities was also affected by the problem of the contaminated water distribution system. Clearly, a direct consequence of businesses and healthcare closures was loss of customers and flow of revenue into the community. One of the interviewees at Water Works Engineers said:
“There were a number of businesses who had the buildings remain standing and they had a viable location. Right after the fire some of them went back to try to reopen I'm sure and they couldn’t because they couldn’t meet County Health Department standards for providing potable water to serve food and to wash dishes and all the things you need to do in a food service business. Other businesses that were not food service businesses also had problems because of concerns about the potability of the water.”
“Urgent care, dentist offices, and doctor's offices, those kinds of places could not open because they couldn’t provide a safe medical environment for patients. And not having medical services or food service locally is very significant for the community.”
Lack of potable water and laundry services further affected the living conditions of those who could not relocate outside Paradise. It put yet another strain on the mental health of the families and children. The residents who returned to Paradise either to their homes that were standing or in trailers, faced the burden of accessing clean water. Due to contamination in the water distribution network (Schulze & Fischer, 2020), residents were required to pay for water tanks, drive frequently to potable water distributions across Butte County (either through churches, nonprofits, or the water district), and endure frequent water testing given the changing levels of contamination and uncertainties revolving water test results (Butte County Recovers, 2021a; Siegler, 2019). One participant mentioned:
“The trailer may not support the electricity that's needed for the water or the battery that's needed to power the washer and dryer. So, a lot of people are without capability of doing laundry and it shows in the kids... one little guy was kind of depressed because he was wearing the same two or three pairs of sweatpants right after the fire and they were getting pretty dirty. He said, well, my mom can't do laundry. So, when I called the mom to talk about it, she goes, yeah, it's really hard to get down to Chico and do that.”
The interconnected impacts of the Camp Fire across various sectors of Paradise were not limited to the few weeks or months after the disaster. While Paradise schools, healthcare facilities, residents, community organizations, and businesses were struggling to restore functions of the town and recover, frequent power shutdowns particularly during the fire season caused various challenges that can be understood as extended impacts of the fire and created setbacks for restoration of the daily functions of the community. During the months of October and November 2019, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) began public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) throughout 30 counties in Northern and Southern California, including Butte County. These shutoffs were in response to the 2018 fire season when strong and dry wind caused wildfires, including the Camp Fire. These power outages impacted over 2.5 million people throughout the state of California and added an extra stressor for the survivors of the Camp Fire.
The power outages brought back memories of the day of the fire. PG&E had not shut down the power on the day of the Camp Fire, even though they had communicated to the public that they would shut down power during dry weather combined with high wind conditions to prevent ignition. A spark from the electrical line in Pulga started the fire o begin with, which then spread far and wide down the valley due to the high winds (Cal Fire, 2019). The power outages directly affected the living conditions for those residing in Paradise leaving them in dark and cold trailers and particularly vulnerable if they depended on medical devices that required electricity. It also resulted in many days of school being canceled while the schools were struggling to recover from the Camp Fire. Beyond academics, school shutdowns deeply impacted those from lower economic backgrounds as the schools provided food, water and some relief from poor living conditions after the Camp Fire. In addition, the power outages caused significant financial loss to both the school district and grocery stores due to waste of perishable food without working fridges. Several Paradise officials shared frustrations about the situation:
“While it's a safety power outage and you think they [students] get a break from school, the reality is they [students] are sitting in the dark in a trailer on a property somewhere which I don't think is doing anything to increase their mental health."
“You are affecting thousands and thousands of lives every day and now it's getting cold and that is one of the reasons we're not in school because yesterday our classes were at thirty-five degrees in the morning up at the top of the hill and we have no heat. Even our generators don't produce heat. So, they're affecting life, lifetimes of people."
“Then it has real monetary value because not only have you lost students attendance for the day but refrigerators and food holding systems in the district, and we don't have that many generators, they've lost thousands and thousands of dollars just in food if those power outages go for multiple days or over the weekend.”
“People have been under stress for almost a year and then figuring out, if my house is standing, how I'm going to keep the stuff in my refrigerator cold and have my oxygen machine work. How am I going to get my kids ready for school when it's dark and now something that you've come to rely on your whole life--you flip a switch and the light comes on--now you have to figure out a different way or invest seven thousand dollars on a generator on your home.”
During the community information meeting on the second anniversary of the Camp Fire, officials from both schools and hospitals emphasized the need for backup power systems, via generators and solar energy batteries to deal with the PG&E public safety power shutdowns (Town of Paradise, 2020).
3.2. Interconnected recovery challenges
We found multiple interdependencies between restoration of education and healthcare and population return, and recovery of homes, businesses, and other sectors. Paradise was a small community with many families who had lived there for generations or moved there for retirement because of their love of the town’s beautiful natural setting, tight knit community, and affordable living. This shared sense of belonging created a strong bond to the community. Many of the residents knew each other well and the Paradise High School football games were considered a big community event, which many, if not everyone looked forward to. Thus, schools played a critical part in bringing the Paradisians together and provided a sense of community even beyond families who had kids attending schools. Following the fire, the damage, closure, and disruption of the schools’ community activities created an additional layer of loss for everyone in the community beyond the students and the staff. Therefore, reopening the schools in Paradise became a priority not only for restoring the educational services but also for encouraging residents and businesses to return and for restoring the sense of community.
"Everybody knows everybody around here. And it's like thirty thousand people. It's still a small community feel, and that's what's huge about it, and a lot of people want that back. They want to have that community back."
“Paradise High School has always been a football school and that's always been a source of pride for them especially the last probably ten to fifteen years with their success. And probably this year has had more attention to it than ever before...Seeing a crowd of six thousand people in that stadium to support. We had ESPN and all the major networks there. It was just unreal. But that's what this community needed. They needed that support.”
One of the biggest and most critical challenges of recovery was the loss of almost all housing and the uncertainty of housing recovery. Rebuilding of homes and return of residents has clear consequences for restoring other functions including education and healthcare. The much-debated reopening of the Feather River Hospital in its pre-fire capacity or with just emergency services was solely dependent on the projected number of residents rebuilding in Paradise (Town of Paradise Community Information Meeting, November 5 2020). School enrollment and attendance directly affect their funding. Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funding is dependent on the total number of days of student attendance divided by the total number of days in the regular school year. PUSD had already suffered from chronic absenteeism before the Camp Fire at about 18%, a rate significantly higher than the statewide 11% in 2017-18 (Washburn, 2019).
After the Camp Fire, about 50% of students returned to Paradise schools in merged or temporary locations. Parents who had transferred their children to new schools after finding temporary or permanent housing elsewhere were unsure about returning them to Paradise schools not only due to their concerns with schools' recovery but also due to uncertainties in hazard tree removals, water contamination, and housing recovery. A survey conducted five months after the Camp Fire found that about 48% of residents were either unsure or decided not to return to Paradise, bringing the population to just 4,000 even 20 months after the disaster (Bliss, 2020). Therefore, slow and uncertain recovery of both schools and housing and other interconnected community sectors further exacerbated the absenteeism and by extension the funding gap problems in PUSD.
“We're asking Cal OES [Cal Governor’s Office of Emergency Services] to do that [hazard tree removal]. I think it's the District recognizing that that's a concern that parents are going to have and making sure that kids are emotionally safe and they're not exposed to it, especially the little ones. “
“The school can only grow as fast as the community. The rebuilding is going very slow out there… One of the most painful things a school has to face is when they have declining enrollment. It just slowly bleeds your budgets; it really decimates morale. It's a very difficult process to go through when you're losing more and more kids each year.”
Sweeping loss of housing during the Camp Fire directly affected other sectors not only in Paradise but also in surrounding communities that absorbed many of the residents looking for temporary housing (Rochita, 2019). Chico, a WUI community 14 miles east of Paradise and not directly affected by the Camp Fire, received many Paradisians who were seeking housing in the area. As a result, Chico housing prices that were already much higher than Paradise before the fire ($305,300 average in Chico versus $218,400 in Paradise), escalated immediately after the disaster. This surge in pricing was a barrier for vulnerable groups to relocate from Paradise (DataUSA, 2018; Johnson, 2018). The influx of population to Chico spurred public expressions of discontent towards the Camp Fire diaspora by some of Chico’s native residents blaming Paradisians for increasing traffic and customer lines in grocery stores, gas stations, and other daily services (Urseny, 2019). Further, the hospitals in Chico were overwhelmed with the influx of residents requiring medical assistance (Wade, 2019).
Leaders in the PUSD and other local organizations were concerned that if the schools did not reopen, the community of Paradise would not come back to the town. Several school administrators suggested during the interviews that if the schools recovered quickly, it would encourage parents of younger kids to come back to Paradise and rebuild their homes. Access to schools and undisrupted education, they argued, would incentivize return to Paradise, which in turn would help the restoration of local businesses and other services. Recovery of the schools was viewed as a key factor in facilitating parallel recoveries of the community. Administrators and staff at different schools noted:
“The school is the magnet. Because if there's a school here, people have something to move back for, and the school will bring the stores. Somebody has to step out first and say, "Okay, I'll be the one. I'll go back." Because if the grocery store opens, then people know I can live there. I have a place to get groceries. And if the school comes back, people say I can live there. I have a place to take my kids for school.”
“I think schools could play a huge role in how the town grows. I know when I had an initial conversation with the manager of a local grocery store, Save Mart, and I shared our [school’s] plans of returning to the community. He was overjoyed because--right now there's some energy in town because of all the debris removal. And then once that's [energy] gone, they [businesses] just need to have us [schools] to bring that infusion of energy to bring those families back to Paradise.”
The amount and timing of the various housing resources have not been adequate against the enormous needs of a community that has lost 95% of its building stock, and home to a large number of socially vulnerable households. As of February 1, 2021, at the time of writing this paper, 1,464 building permit applications had been submitted, 1,308 building permits had been issued, and 607 new homes constructed (Town of Paradise, 2020). Most homeowners were waiting for insurance payouts or PG&E lawsuit settlements to start rebuilding, marking a very slow and complicated housing recovery process (Bliss, 2020). Some of the residents waiting for insurance payouts and recovery funds to start rebuilding could not afford temporary housing close to Paradise and eventually moved to other states (Von Kaenel, 2019a). These moves led to loss of access to familiar primary physicians, and moving medical records from one pharmacy to another triggered the trauma from the fire long into the recovery process particularly for the elderly and those with chronic health issues (Von Kaenel, 2019b).
4. Adopting new communication means and norms for recovery
Previous research finds that social media provides real-time information exchange and communication for mobilizing resources and communities both during and after disasters (Bird et al., 2012; Finau et al., 2018). Our study showed critical and interesting roles that social media played from response to recovery in Paradise and the importance of social media in connecting the school community.
After the fire, PUSD used multiple methods to get in contact with students and parents. One of these methods was social media. Social media was one of the critical tools school staff used to reach and locate their students after the Camp Fire. Tracking students through social media proved to be essential because families were dispersed across many towns or even states months after the disaster, therefore reaching them through traditional means in the absence of local networks or in-person communication was extremely challenging. Further, social media outlets were used extensively and effectively throughout the 2018-2019 school year to communicate PUSD updates with parents and students with regards to locations of schools, reopening plans in Paradise, and events occurring throughout the school year. School staff continued to use social media frequently during the first school year back in Paradise (2019-2020) to communicate with students during PG&E power outages that occurred in Fall 2019. Staff in various capacities noted the effectiveness of social media for communicating important updates with students:
“I spent some time working on a project where we very literally called or emailed or sometimes used social media, whatever we could find to locate and make contact with every single student that we had, and we still lost some.”
“For some reason, everyone can get on social media. They can't answer their phones, but they can get on social media so between that and word of mouth, it seemed to spread it really well on what the [school return] plans and processes were going to be.”
The social media communication in the school community took various directions and forms beyond information sharing. Social media provided students with an opportunity to connect with their teachers directly and whenever they wanted, a channel that was rarely used before the Camp Fire. This also signifies a change in communication norms among students and teachers. Some teachers changed their rule of communication via Facebook for students, allowing the students to “friend” them on Facebook to increase opportunities for reaching out when they needed help. This fluidity of social norms and boundaries around communication after the Camp Fire enhanced community resilience by increasing and enriching connections among disaster survivors who also provided support to each other. Staff at different schools noted:
“So that was one of my big things, worrying about the kids and I actually have changed in social media policies after the fire. I will add any kid that wants me to add them on Facebook. I'll give them my number so they can message me back and forth...In a way, it's brought us a lot closer.”
“Because they [the students] were scattered far and wide. Not all of them had their phones. So basically, it seemed rather patchwork-y, but pretty quickly they were able to hear from all the different teachers. We used Facebook. ... I think I even had a few kids call me on Voxer because I have a Voxer connection with some of them. And word of mouth.”
Given the total destruction to their town, the school community like the rest of Paradisians were yearning to find another common place for coexisting and connecting as a town and they found that in virtual communication platforms and/or on social media. Further, local recovery officials acknowledged the importance of reaching out to those displaced all over the country to communicate recovery plans via social media (Escalante, 2019).
Most notably, because members of PUSD (teachers, parents, students) were adapted to using social media and communications technology, their online communication and virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic occurred more smoothly. This learning experience allows students and teachers to communicate with one another and for the school district to communicate ever changing plans to students and parents with less difficulty, according to the PUSD superintendent.