In Paradise, CA, High School Still Stands, Serves Students at One-Year Anniversary of the Camp Fire

In a town where almost everything was destroyed by a fire last November,  the high school building in Paradise remains. School librarian Becky Safarik shares the story of the evacuation and return as staff and students are back on campus this year.

On Friday November 8, the library at Paradise (CA) Junior and Senior High School will be the hub of counseling and comfort. On the one-year anniversary of the fire that burned down most of the town, the high school’s technology, library, and student information coordinator, Becky Safarik, is opening her space for counseling—or just to provide a place for students who need to take a break, be alone, maybe color or sit and talk with a friend.

Paradise Junior and Senior High Nov 2019
All photos courtesy Becky Safarik

The national narrative is that Paradise was lost, an entire community burned down by the Camp Fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. But not everything or everyone is gone. The high school building remains, and students and staff returned to the campus in August for the 2019-20 school year after finishing last year at a temporary building in nearby Chico following the fire.

Enrollment is approximately half of what it was pre-fire, because families whose homes were destroyed moved away. With fewer students, one elementary school burned down, and another too damaged to use, the 7th and 8th grade students were moved to the high school campus. Elementary students are now in the former intermediate school.

It’s incredible that there is even a campus.

Left: Bobcat mascot carved out of a tree that burned down. Right: Stumps from formerly pine trees that burned and were cut down. 

The trees on both sides of the campus and in front of the building burned. Seven portable classrooms were destroyed as well. The church on one side of the school and apartment building on the other were both destroyed as well. Yet only one wall of the main high school building was singed.

“The entire neighborhood is gone,” Safarik says. “I don’t know how we are not gone. It would make more sense if some of the things around us didn’t burn, but everything burned. There’s just nothing left.”

For the anniversary of the fire, the school had originally planned to invite a speaker to talk about the fire and resilience. But after the school community expressed some discomfort at the idea, the event was cancelled.

“Personally I’m glad,” Safarik says of the cancellation. The school will have a Thanksgiving meal for students and families during lunch periods on Friday.

Safarik has been at Paradise High school since 1999. She was a biology and chemistry teacher then briefly the district librarian with the campus as her home base, before taking on her current position about a decade ago.

Now she handles the library, as well as technology for the school.

“As far as being the standard high school librarian, that’s only a small portion of my job,” she says. “I’m hardly ever in classrooms with teachers. I’m not actively engaged with instructing the kids, except in case of certain digital tools. I almost never collaborate with teachers on lesson plans. Because my job is just a little too broad.”

Students wait to be picked up, Nov. 8, 2018.

As many of her colleagues sought other positions in different districts after the fire because of their personal housing situation or fear of not having a job with fewer kids to teach, Safarik returned. She was encouraged to apply for a high school librarian position in Chico for this year, but decided against it.

“I feel really strongly that we are in dire need of people who know this campus and this community,” she says. “These kids need to see us come back.”

Fellow staff members need to see it too. At a recent staff training, one non-Paradise resident expressed his guilt about being able to return to his home each night while his colleagues struggle to rebuild their houses and lives. But one of those people who lived in Paradise and lost her home spoke up.

“She said, ‘You know those of you who didn’t lose your home, up here we’re so thankful [to you]. We’re up here in this burned-out place worried that our community is gone, yet all of you who come from Chico give us that hope that we’re still being noticed, we’re still being cared about,’” Safarik recalls.

“So I feel really good about coming back, and I feel like I make a difference. I came back because I care about the community and the kids.”

Traffic and darkness as Becky Safarik leaves 
her daughter's home around 9:30 a.m.

But it isn’t easy, Safarik admits. On her drive in every day, she passes the burned trees and the destroyed school neighborhood and remembers Nov. 8, 2018. That day, she arrived at school at about 7:30 and saw the “fire clouds” but that was not unusual and she was not particularly alarmed—”at that point, it was certainly contained,” she says. 

Conditions changed quickly, however. Safarik describes “ashes coming down and the sky getting more and more orange.” 

Then came the orange glow in the sky, the falling ash, and the realization that the school needed to evacuate students and staff as soon as possible. When she believed things were under control at school, Safarik went to help her daughter and grandson evacuate from their home about five minutes away. She remembers taking about 20 minutes to help pack them up before fighting through evacuation traffic as she watched fire get closer in the rearview mirror.

As she helped her daughter and grandson get out of town, the two remaining teachers at the high school made a decision to evacuate the 16 kids whose parents hadn’t gotten back to them yet. Because they couldn’t fit all of the kids in their own cars, they walked them down to the nearest cross street and asked people driving by to take them to the designated meeting place. They “just had to trust” the passing motorists, says Safarik.

The remaining few students got into the teachers' cars and evacuated—one teacher navigating his car down a wide bike path to avoid the traffic and get the students to safety quicker.

“We all have evacuation plans,” says Safarik. “We know where we’re going to evacuate to. But all of that stuff burned, too, so none of the plans went into effect. None of the plans said the town was going to burn down.

“It was such a big ‘What do you do?’” she adds. “You just do your best, and the best was fabulous. The teachers were there for the kids, and they got them off campus by hook or by crook.”

Now, many students are back, including kids who had enrolled in different districts but have now returned. Their parents have told Safarik the students at the new school were kind, but the family realized the Paradise kids needed peers who didn’t just sympathize with what happened but had lived through it, too, so they truly understand, she says.

"It's tough, but we're here because we want to be here, and the kids are here because they want to be here," she says.

There is much more counseling available at the school than in the past. And it has a library that—thanks to a couple of grants—is transitioning into a 21st-century learning space with mobile furniture and monitors to help with group projects and digital learning.

Library with new furniture and bookshelves.

“It’s very new for me,” says Safarik. “We’ve been so busy just trying to get up to speed and getting back to campus and dealing with everything we’ve been dealing with, I’m just slowly getting my sea legs.”

The broader library collection is a work-in-progress. She didn't take any books from the 7th and 8th grade library, so she is starting that collection from scratch. She’s determined to create a 21st-century learning space with a quality collection for all of the students, and to keep showing up for the kids and fellow staff who returned to Paradise.

“There’s a long of strong community feeling in this area. It’s a tight-knit crew,” she says. “People have a lot of pride in their community, and this is where they want to go to school."

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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