How Paradise High School Students are Inspiring and Rebuilding after California Wildfires Ravaged their Town

Sarah Peters stands in front of her destroyed home in Paradise, California.

On the day the Camp Fire scorched their home, Sarah Peters and her family moved into a house that her father, a contractor, was remodeling. The home had an unfinished kitchen and no paint on the walls.

For two days, the family huddled together in the shell of a home in Chico, covered with blankets because they didn’t have heat.

The owners have continued to let them live in the unfinished home since November, when the fire virtually wiped out the northern California town of Paradise, known for its lush pine trees.

The blaze charred an area roughly the size of Chicago, vaporizing thousands of buildings, including the homes of many of Peters’ classmates at Paradise High School.

Very little of their old life remains. More than 900 students attended the school before the fire. Today about 500 students are on a temporary campus, and about 175 take classes online. Some struggled with being separated from friends. But they have found ways to persevere as their town recovers from the disaster, attending school in an office complex while living with relatives or friends.

In the three months since the fire, the students have learned lessons in resilience, they say, and some seniors, like Peters, made those lessons the subject of their college essays.

At one point, she told her mother that they needed to change her financial aid application for college. “We’re homeless,” she said.

But she’s come to terms with the loss, she said, standing in front of the rubble that was her home. “I’m at peace with what happened. I’m not happy about it, but I’m at peace.”

“I think everyone at PHS, especially the seniors, we’re survivors,” the 17-year-old said. “In a way, we’ve gained a lot, even in comparison to what we’ve lost.”

‘There is hope to rebuild’

The fire, which broke out on November 8, 2018, was the deadliest in state history, claiming 85 lives. The blaze destroyed three campuses, and damaged classrooms at other schools including Paradise High, according to Ed Gregorio, a principal at Ponderosa Elementary, which was destroyed.

The fire also burned down the homes of many students, including 18-year-old senior Lilly Rickards, who lost the house in Chico where she lived with her mother and two siblings.

“After the fire I felt like school was not the most important thing, it was about family,” she said. She now lives with a friend and another sibling, Bryanna.

They share a bed, she said, and “Bryanna complains that I kick her in the middle of the night.”

Students in the Paradise Unified District returned to classes about a month after the fire. About half of the students in the district relocated to nearby districts, other parts of California, and across the country, school officials said.

Paradise High’s new location in an impersonal business park didn’t feel like a school at first. There are no walls to separate many classrooms. So students and teachers put up posters to make it resemble their old campus. “Teachers are heroes,” one poster said.

Another featured a drawing of a pine tree and said “Bobcat Family,” referring to the school’s mascot.

The posters are one of the things that made school start to feel like normal again, Rickards said.

Some students worked in classrooms separated by dividers. Others worked at computers in open spaces with electrical lines snaking out of ceiling tiles.

And the kindness of one of Rickards’ teachers also helped.

Her theater and chorus teacher asked the students if they needed anything to help them cope. Rickards told him she wanted to go on a chorus trip.

In December, with his help, she performed with the chorus at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles.

Paradise High principal Loren Lightfall said teachers tried to create a sense of stability because students have lost friends, their churches and their school.

“The students go to the same classes, with the same kids, with the same friends, with the same teachers at the same time,” Lightfall said.

“They did not have to change schedules or drop classes. We made it normal.”

Rickards had planned to get a tattoo for her birthday last year — she’d wanted an infinity symbol with the word “Sister,” like her two older sisters have.

But before she went through with it, the fire happened. Instead, she decided to get a tattoo of a half-burned pine tree on her right arm.

“The tree is half burned,” she said, “because there is hope to rebuild and regrow.”

‘It was a like a tease’

Austyn Swarts, a 17-year-old Paradise senior, says it was painful starting over at a new school after his family moved to Red Bluff, northwest of Paradise.

He returned to Paradise High three weeks ago.

“If I had to use one word, I feel safe,” he said.

He and his mother had been staying with family and friends last year before they moved into a rental property in November. Four days later, the Camp Fire destroyed it.

“You finally get something that you need, and it was kind of taken from you. It was like a tease,” he said.

Now he’s been staying with family and friends again, sleeping on spare beds and couches.

‘Getting though life on the bus’

Nathan Bailey lived in a friend’s converted school bus with his two siblings because the studio apartment his parents moved into after the fire couldn’t fit everyone. They’re “just getting through life on the bus,” the 17-year-old said, laughing.

The Paradise valedictorian wrote about the lessons he learned from the fire in his admissions essays to several schools, including University of California at Berkeley.

Like some students, he has accepted that the fire destroyed his home. He took a reporter back to the spot where his home once stood and playfully jumped on the hood of his charred car.

“You just got to have a good attitude about it and just kind of see the positives,” said Bailey, who lives in a bigger apartment with his family.

‘The craziest legacy’

On Tuesday, about 500 Paradise High students gathered to listen to Kevin Atlas, who is believed to be the first person with one hand ever to play Division I basketball.

He created a series called “Believe in You,” which aims to teach young people to support each other. His visit to Paradise High was part of a 70-school tour sponsored by a company called Varsity Brands, which supplies schools with sporting equipment, classrooms and yearbooks.

He aims to “show everyone in the country what these kids are doing,” he said. “That’s inspirational.”

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SOURCE: CNN, by Darran Simon and Paul Vercammen