Children Return to School after Deadly 'Camp Fire' in California

03 December, 2018

Monday marked a return to school for thousands of children who lost their homes to a deadly wildfire in Northern California.

In Butte County, California, schools have been closed since November 8, when the wildfire now known as "the Camp Fire" started. It quickly moved through the towns of Paradise, Concow and Magalia.

The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in the United States in a century. It killed at least 88 people. Many others are still listed as missing.

The Paradise Unified School District lost eight schools to the wildfire. District officials were not sure how many of their nearly 3,500 students will report to schools that will temporarily replace those destroyed in the fire. Some families have left California. Others are staying with nearby relatives or friends. It is too far for some of them to drive to one of the temporary schools every day.

But nearly all the teachers are returning to provide a calm, familiar face to the children who are able to make it to class.

Jodi Seaholm's daughter Mallory is about to turn 9 years old. In October, Mallory had radiation treatment to remove cancer in her brain and showed no fear, Seaholm told the Associated Press. But "this situation, with her house burning down, has absolutely devastated her," she added.

The burned remains of the Paradise Elementary school is seen Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
The burned remains of the Paradise Elementary school is seen Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

"It's important that the kids are able to stay together and have some sort of normalcy in the crazy devastation that we're having now," Seaholm said.

Two neighboring school districts have permitted children from Paradise to make use of available space in their school. Children who formerly went to Paradise Elementary School will go to school in nearby Oroville, California. Children from Ponderosa Elementary School will be at a school in Durham.

Paradise High School survived the fire. But the school building remains closed because officials have yet to let people return to the area.

The district does not yet have space for middle and high school classrooms. So for the 13 days before the start of the traditional winter break in the school year, students will learn through independent study. They will be given homework online and be able to visit a special drop-in center in Chico, California. Children going there can get help from teachers or visit other classmates.

Loren Lighthall, who heads Paradise High School, said studying will likely be less important than dealing with pain and reconnecting with friends.

"They don't have their school, they don't have their work, they don't have their friends, they don't have any of that stuff and we're asking them to write ... essays?" Lighthall said. "It's just unreasonable at this point. We're going to do it, but we're going to be super flexible with what we require."

Search crews have stopped looking for victims in burned cars and neighborhoods. But they remain available if people believe they find human remains when they are permitted to re-enter the community.

Forty-seven year old Marissa Nypl is living with her family at the home of her husband's coworker in West Sacramento until they can move much closer. That is 145 kilometers from her 10-year-old daughter's temporary school in Durham. It is too far to drive every day. But Nypl wanted to be sure her daughter is there with the other children on the first day back. It will likely be an important part of the healing process.

"They're going to need something that they feel like is still a normal part of life," Nypl said, noting just about everything in town is gone. "The school's going to be the only thing they have ... to feel like something's still routine."

I'm ­Bryan Lynn.

Jonathan J. Cooper reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How can officials help students recover from the effects of the wildfire? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

district n. an area or community; part of a territory

devastate v. to bring to ruin; to wreck

kids n. children

online adj. connected to or involving a computer or telecommunications system

essay n. a short piece of writing on a given subject

flexible adj. easy to bend or influence