PARADISE – No one has yet erected an official memorial on the Paradise High School campus to mark the hideous fire that burned down most of this town in November. But the signs are here.
Scorched pines ring the expanse behind one end of the football field. A burned stump outside the campus has been carved into the school ‘s bobcat mascot. And in Room 117, where Josh Bullock teaches social studies, there ‘s another marker of the day no one can forget. The date on the whiteboard reads, “11 /8 /18.”
“I didn ‘t have the heart to erase it when I came back here in January or February, “ Bullock told his students Thursday. “We are all still dealing with that day in some way. We are all in different places. So I am going to leave it up for today ... and then at the end of the day, I am going to erase it. And then we are going to move on.”
The moving on began this week as students and teachers returned to Paradise ‘s public schools, a significant infusion of life for a town that all but disappeared nine months ago. Reconstruction still lags and debris-removal trucks fill the roads, but the return of students and teachers marked the beginning of what many here hope will be a rebirth.
“I believe that the schools are the cornerstone. You are not going to have a town if you don ‘t have families. And you are not going to have families if you don ‘t have good schools, “ said Michelle John, superintendent of the Paradise Unified School District. “If you asked me, I think it ‘s everything.”
Recognizing the magnitude of the homecoming, teachers mostly put off teaching, to let students hug and enjoy one another.
“I have never had friends in any other town like I have here in Paradise, “ said Bradley Norton, a senior whose family moved briefly back to the Sacramento area after the fire. “When we moved to the city, it just confirmed for all of us how much we wanted to be back up here.”
It ‘s a measure of the devastation here that Paradise lost four of its nine campuses –two elementary schools, a continuation high school and an adult school –and yet the damage seemed mild. That ‘s in comparison to a town that lost about 90 % of its homes and saw its population drop from 27, 000 to roughly 2, 000.
On the first day of school, the two shuttered elementary schools had merged on what was once the middle school campus, while seventh-and eighth-graders shifted to the Paradise High School campus. Paradise High returned to its historic campus, an island in a scorched landscape.
Early estimates suggest it will cost $50 million to replace the school district ‘s lost structures. For now, the campuses have received some fresh paint and new water systems, to filter any pollutants that may have seeped out of thousands of burned structures. A more comprehensive building program will have to wait until the district can assess how many students it will need to accommodate.
That remains a work in progress, with many families delaying decisions about rebuilding. Thursday, an unexpected crush of students pushed attendance to 1, 500, more than the 1, 200 expected but far short of the 3, 400 enrolled before the Camp fire.
California has suffered so many fire calamities that these formerly once-in-a-lifetime events have become routine enough to be recognized by the state ‘s budget makers. A series of firestorms in the fall of 2017 burned more than 6, 000 structures and killed 44 people in the wine country at the north end of San Francisco Bay. Afterward, California lawmakers agreed to assure that communities hit by fire devastation did not suffer an additional loss : the reduction of school funding as students fled to other communities.
Those rules assure that Paradise Unified will suffer no major cuts to its roughly $40-million annual budget either this year or next year. After that, the school district ‘s funding will be reduced commensurate with what is expected to be a substantially smaller student population.
Uncertainty has been a way of life here since that day –marked on the classroom whiteboard –when 50-mph winds catapulted flames through Paradise and neighboring communities. Some 14, 000 homes burned and 86 people died, both records for California wildfires.
The fire left Paradise High smoke-damaged and inaccessible to students, whose families mostly moved to the Sacramento Valley. The school remained closed for three weeks before shifting into drop-in “labs “ at the Chico Mall, with most schoolwork completed online. After the winter holidays, the high school reopened, but in a converted warehouse at Chico Municipal Airport. That meant students packed together in “classrooms “ separated only by temporary partitions.
The sounds of wood shop, gym classes and random conversations echoed through a building that became known as “the Fortress.” The name came from a nearby street but also could have applied to a state of mind. More than one student recalled feeling “caged “ at the temporary campus.
“After everything we have been through and overcome, I am so excited to be here, “ senior Shannon Moakley said Thursday after a loud morning pep rally in the gym. Her family decamped for several months to Texas, before she led the push for them to come home. “This campus is like home to me.”