© 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Frustration after a fire: Recovery for rural schools can be long and complex

The Creek Fire burning in the Sierra National Forest Sept. 5, 2020.
Sierra National Forest
The Creek Fire burning in the Sierra National Forest Sept. 5, 2020.

Long after the smoke has cleared in Happy Camp, California, school staff, students and families are grappling with trauma, uncertainty and a dire housing shortage that’s left many to suffer from long-term homelessness.

During the week, Derek Cooper, superintendent of Happy Camp Union Elementary, lives in a trailer behind the school. On weekends, he drives 14 hours roundtrip to his home in Lake Tahoe.

He’d prefer to live full-time in the Siskiyou County community where he works, but after a fire ravaged the town almost three years ago, there is nothing to rent, nothing to buy, and no end in sight.

“Even if there was someplace to live here, I would not want to rent a house that a family could live in,” Cooper said. “So many people are still struggling.”

Long after the smoke has cleared in Happy Camp, school staff, students and families are grappling with trauma, uncertainty and a dire housing shortage that’s left many to suffer from long-term homelessness.

The town of 1,000 lost nearly 200 homes in the Slater fire, which tore through the heavily forested area near the Oregon border — much of which is Karuk tribal land – in fall 2020. Although some residents have brought in trailers, many have resorted to couch-surfing, doubling up with other families or living outdoors.

At Happy Camp Elementary, nearly half of the school’s families and staff lost their homes, a situation mirrored in other parts of California. Small towns devastated by wildfires are facing myriad hardships as they try to rebuild and recover.

The damage has played out in lower attendance rates, lower test scores, higher staff turnover and extreme difficulty in recruiting new teachers. In Happy Camp, for example, nearly half the student body was chronically absent the year following the fire.

“Homelessness is tough anywhere, but in rural areas, it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Tim Taylor, director of the Small School Districts’ Association. “There’s no social services. The school is the social service. And schools just don’t have the resources they need.”

Happy Camp school staff members have done their best to serve their students and families. Even while many staff members were experiencing their own housing challenges, they managed to secure half a dozen trailers, host an 11-week class for parents on helping their children cope with trauma, organized clothing drives and held fundraisers to buy furniture, food, gas and other essentials for families who lost their homes.

Perhaps the most important step was to host a barbecue every Tuesday night for anyone who wanted to come.

“The idea was to feed people,” Cooper said, “but also give people time to gather and talk, so they know they’re not alone.”

The exact number of homeless students in rural areas is difficult to gauge, but there’s no question the numbers have risen significantly in communities damaged by wildfires, said Brittany Collier, homeless student liaison at the Siskiyou County Office of Education.

Exacerbating the housing shortage, housing costs have risen sharply. Families who lost everything in a fire now find themselves unable to afford an apartment even if they can find one. A house in the town of Mount Shasta, for example, that rented for $850 a month less than a decade ago now rents for almost $2,000 a month, she said. As a result, some families have moved away, and others are relying on family, friends or even teachers for accommodations.

“People are opening their doors because there’s a need,” she said.

The state should do more to help rural schools struggling in the aftermath of wildfires, Cooper and others said. More counselors, more trailers and less red tape would be especially helpful in the first weeks after a fire. And longer term, help with rebuilding and hiring would help not just the school, but the whole community recover quicker.

The sheer volume of paperwork after a fire can be overwhelming for schools, Cooper said.

While the Department of Education can’t reduce the avalanche of emails and forms, it does offer grants for schools to hire temporary staff to help, department spokesperson Brody Fernandez said. It can also extend deadlines and help coordinate recovery efforts between school districts and local emergency agencies.

In a state that’s seen dozens of catastrophic wildfires the past few years, perhaps no school administrator has been as transient as Jimmie Eggers, superintendent of Big Creek Elementary in the mountains of eastern Fresno County.

Eggers was hired to lead the tiny K-8 district a few months after the Creek fire destroyed much of the town in September 2020. Because the fire damaged half the town’s homes, including those owned by the school, he and his wife lived in a 25-foot trailer behind the gym.

After a few months, they moved into a vacant office in the local U.S. Forest Service building. Eggers painted it, installed carpet and curtains and tried to make it home.

When an Airbnb unit opened up, they lived there for a few months. When another booking came up, they had to move out, relocating to a rental in Shaver Lake, 30 minutes south. This summer, they hope to move into newly rebuilt school housing — if it’s finished in time.

And he feels lucky —because many others in the community are still waiting for permanent housing. There aren’t many options. The 200-resident town, which is centered around a Southern California Edison hydroelectric plant, lost half its housing stock in the fire – including four of six homes owned by the school district. Rents in Shaver Lake, a popular vacation destination, average $3,000 a month. Fresno is a 90-minute drive west.

“It has been exceptionally stressful. That’s what people don’t understand. I — and many others — have essentially been homeless for two years,” he said. “Everyone says that after a fire, people will bounce back fast. That has not been the case.”

Happy Camp’s school campus escaped the fire unscathed, but that was not the case in Big Creek. The Creek fire scorched the playground, and firefighters destroyed the grass field when they used it as a staging area. A propane tank exploded, the gym and cafeteria were badly damaged, the pool filled with debris and countless school records were lost.

In addition to his superintendent duties, Eggers has been serving as a construction project manager, overseeing numerous rebuilding projects, all of which have been delayed due to Covid-related supply chain shortages and the remoteness of the location.

Housing and reconstruction, however, are not Eggers’ biggest concerns. Like Cooper, Eggers spends much of his time trying to address the mental health needs of students. After the fires, so many students suffered trauma upon trauma — losing homes, moving, impoverishment — that all aspects of the school have been impacted: attendance, discipline, academic achievement, overall morale.

And hiring teachers, counselors and other staff has not been easy, considering the town has zero housing vacancies.

“I’m recruiting, but I’m lucky if I get one applicant,” Eggers said.

And then came the snow. Big Creek saw so much snow last winter that Highway 168 — the only road to town — was closed for a month to everyone but residents, leaving some school staff unable to get to work. The school suffered damage from snow and rain, and must now contend with the threat of dangerously high water in the creeks.

But Eggers doesn’t plan to leave any time soon.

“I’m going to see this through,” he said. “This needs to be done right. I couldn’t leave this for someone else.”

When the Slater fire raced over the ridge toward the town of Happy Camp on a weekday morning, most of the town’s children were in school. If they hadn’t been, Cooper believes some would have died in the fire because evacuation would have been much more difficult.

Cooper was the last to leave the school on that terrifying day. It was three weeks before anyone could return to what remained of the town, and even years later, the recovery continues.

“What people don’t understand about the aftermath of a fire is the waiting,” Cooper said. “The waiting for insurance. The waiting for lawsuits. The waiting to rebuild. … It’s scary, and it’s tough.”

EdSource is a California-based independent nonprofit organization founded in 1977, dedicated to providing analysis on key education issues facing the state and nation.