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Nation & World

6 Months After Paradise Burned, Trauma Endures For Kids And Adults

A homemade sign hangs on the fence surrounded Paradise Elementary School. The school was destroyed by the fire and the rubble is now being bulldozed and cleaned up.
A homemade sign hangs on the fence surrounded Paradise Elementary School. The school was destroyed by the fire and the rubble is now being bulldozed and cleaned up.

Six months ago, the deadly Camp Fire swept through Paradise, Concow, and Magalia, small communities all located in Butte County in Northern California. The wildfire killed 86 people and destroyed thousands of homes, schools, and businesses.

Now, mental health specialists working in Butte County schools say they're seeing a second wave of trauma from survivors. But there aren't enough counselors to help all of the students, teachers and staff dealing with this second wave of trauma.

"We have six schools that have requested help, and we can't bring help to them," said Roy Applegate, who coordinates Recovery Trauma Services for the Butte County Office of Education. "It's a little bit like rain in the desert in the summer: As soon as it hits the ground, it disappears. We can give our counselors as many hours as they need, and they're full up all the time. They're working to the max."

The trauma specialists working in Butte County schools knew they'd start seeing kids act out around six months after the deadly Camp Fire, since anniversaries are known to trigger survivors into reliving moments of the traumatic event.

We can give our counselors as many hours as they need, and they're full up all the time. They're working to the max.

Different people are dealing with different levels of trauma depending on how stable they were before it started.

"It depends on whether or not they've secured some basic levels of need: housing, food, routine access to resources," said Dena Kapsalis, Director of Student Services for the Paradise Unified School District.

Finding housing has been particularly difficult. Butte County already faced a housing crisis before the fire swept through, and now, with nearly 20,000 more people who've been forced to relocate in nearby Chico, things have gotten even tighter.

Acting out as a form of communication

But regardless of their situation, all families may notice their kids exhibiting unusual behavior.

"We're seeing lots and lots of manifestations of trauma," Kapsalis said. "A lot of acting out, tiredness, inability to focus, shutting down, being unable to maintain relationships with adults or peers."

While it may be distressing for parents to see their kids struggling, Kapsalis says counselors try to view this acting out as a form of communication. And the fact that kids are even at school shows their resilience.

With adults it's much harder because they have all kinds of systems of coping that often disguise what's really going on with them.

"The gift of being with kids is that they don't second-guess themselves typically. So we're afforded the ability to have more transparent responses and communication from them," Kapsalis said. "So they're communicating loss, they're communicating a need for help, a need for support."

Adults are harder

But it's much more difficult for support staff to determine teachers are coping — many of them were also impacted by the Nov. 8 fire.

"With adults it's much harder because they have all kinds of systems of coping that often disguise what's really going on with them," Kapsalis said.

To better support their teachers, counselors have started setting up shop in common areas, including staff rooms, hallways and even near copiers, to encourage conversation and help connect them with services.

To fill the need for more counselors, the Butte County Office of Education has called several of their workers out of retirement to help out. Pamela Beeman had been retired for nearly five years when she got the call. "When I got the phone call, I said, 'Oh no, I really don't want to go back to work,' and they said, 'No, we really need you,' " she said. "You can't just say no to that."

Beeman is currently working as a fire recovery counselor at Spring Valley School, but she doesn't know how long she can continue.

"We're just getting started," Beeman said. "This is a long road, and some of the worst symptoms for survivors are starting to emerge. It's really easy to lose heart."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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