Most schools have reopened in the North Bay communities that were devastated by October's massive wildfires. Many students and teachers, though, are returning to class holding on to the intense, often traumatic experiences of recent weeks.
Even communities that didn't have severe fire damage were forced to close schools during the disaster. Sonoma County was hit particularly hard, where nearly 7,000 homes and other structures were destroyed, including several school sites.
"Being in this kind of situation kind of takes it out of you," said Michael, a 10th-grader at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, whose family was forced to evacuate. "The stress of everything going on. You see all these people hurrying to get out. Then you see the dense amount of smoke and you can smell it in the air. It’s frightening.”
For Devin, an eighth-grader at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, it was a stark realization of how fast a disaster like this can completely level an entire community.
“It’s just crazy that this can happen in a such a short period of time and it can cause this much destruction,” he said.
About 400 students and 200 staff members have already reported losing their homes, said Sonoma County schools superintendent Steve Herrington, noting that the number is almost certain to grow.
"There will be a real need to address the trauma and long-term displacement that so many of our students, their families and their teachers have experienced,” Herrington said.
"All my kids were impacted," said Chloe Fischbach, a special education teacher at Rancho Cotate, where many students were forced to evacuate. And that, she adds, can actually make for a good teaching opportunity.
"I think that the school has kind of learned from this and is really talking about how to make crisis a more teachable subject for kids so that they do understand what happens and how it works," said Fischbach, a Santa Rosa resident who remains uncertain if she'll be able to return to her own apartment, which incurred severe smoke damage.
Fischbach notes that even though most of her students didn't lose their houses in the fire, everyone knew someone who did.
"I want my kids to know that you can prepare yourself for these kinds of things," she said. "We talked about making lists and understanding what are the important things in life. What do we need to grab? Is it really important that you grab the PS4 game? Probably not. But do you want to grab that picture of you and your grandpa on the wall that you love to look at? Probably."
What's in your go bag?
“Things you cannot live without,” Capt. Erica Arteseros of San Francisco’s Fire Department told KQED's Erika Aguilar. Arteseros emphasized the importance of also having an evacuation plan in place, which includes knowing exactly where to go and how to get there.
“In the future, we’d like to have a whole closet full of emergency stuff and just know where everything is and stay organized," said Stormy, a 12th-grader at Rancho Cotate who stayed in her home without power for over a week while her father helped bulldoze a fire line around their property on the border of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.
"I was calm this time, but I know I'll be calmer next time and just be more prepared and have a set plan.”
Stella, a seventh-grader at Kenilworth, also noted the importance of photos and other irreplaceable memorabilia: "If your house does burn, you can get new clothes and build a house, but it’s hard to remake memories.”
"It made me realize how little in my room I actually care about," said Carissa, an eighth-grader at Kenilworth.
And Rysean, also a Kenilworth eighth-grader, had his own list: “The stuff I would bring is really specific. Like a basketball. Which is weird. But then, that's just what I want."
How to help
Many teachers have used this and other recent disasters as an opportunity to discuss ways to help those in need.
Most experts say that donating money to victims of disasters is generally the most useful thing to do, but for students who want to get involved and don't often have a ton of cash to contribute, public service can be a powerful experience.
"I think kids struggle the most with feeling useless, like no one really wants their help," said Fischbach, the Rancho Cotate teacher. "And so I think giving them the opportunity to feel like they're making an impact and doing something instead of just watching it from the sidelines is really important."
There is real value, she notes, in introducing tangible things that young people can do to make a real difference to those in need.
Among other things, Fischbach had students write thank-you notes to firefighters and donate clothing.
"We're working on making them feel involved so that they feel like they're having impact moving forward."
“It made me feel really good inside because I’m doing something not just for my sake but for people I don’t know, random strangers. " said Lily, an eighth-grader at Kenilworth. "Helping them get through the tough times when they were losing everything that they had.”
And for Jocelynne, also an eighth-grader at Kenilworth, the experience has made her feel that much closer to people affected by disasters in more distant locations.
“When we used to hear about hurricanes, I would feel bad for them. But it never really affected me or anyone I knew. So it didn’t exactly feel like it was happening. But this definitely had a huge impact on us. So now every time a fire or a hurricane happens (elsewhere), I’ll remember how I felt during this period."
Thank you to teachers Kirk Amos and Chloe Fischbach at Rancho Cotate High School, Laura Bradley at Kenilworth Junior High School and Dan Rosales at American Canyon High School for their help with this post and lesson plan.