Sonoma County Schools Relay Help to Butte and Other Fire-Ravaged Districts

2 min
A year ago Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington was surveying his own fire disaster. Now he's helping Butte County school officials. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Steve Herrington, Sonoma County's top schools official, walked out of a meeting on Nov. 9 when he noticed a huge plume of smoke heading directly for Santa Rosa.

"I saw this big cloud coming in and I was like, ‘Whoa, there is a big fire coming in,' " Herrington said.

The Sonoma County superintendent of schools had good reason to pay attention. Just over a year ago his county experienced massive devastation from the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed 5,636 structures and killed 22 people.

This time, though, the smoke was coming from 150 miles away, a blaze that would become California's most destructive wildfire on record and its deadliest, the Camp Fire in Butte County.

Sonoma County is still feeling the effects of entire schools having been ruined by fire and the trauma of staff and students losing their homes overnight.

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That plume of smoke earlier this month triggered a flash of anxiety, Herrington said.

He got a call that night from his counterpart in the county that was being ravaged by fire, Tim Taylor, Butte County's superintendent of schools.

"When he called me at home and told me the situation they were going through, I advised him on what he needed to do next," Herrington said. "We have developed a resource packet that has gone out to all these counties." He calls it the "To-Do List."

Sonoma County education officials are also helping school districts in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Lake and Shasta counties -- all areas hit hard by fire in the last year.

Herrington said his office has advised districts on how to handle logistics and communication issues after fire sweeps through communities.

Get funding for teachers to find new homes, make sure displaced families know their children can go to any school closest to them and lobby the state to keep funding steady even if district attendance drops off, he emphasized.

Sonoma County lost approximately 1,600 students who never returned after the 2017 fires, according to Harrington.

"I thought we were an anomaly. But it doesn’t look that way," Herrington said. "Any one of your districts could have this happen to them, and now we’re seeing it."

On top of those practical lessons, Herrington said he has offered tips on more complex problems: how to help students and teachers deal with the emotional trauma that lands in class after a major blaze.

Mandy Corbin, Sonoma County's interim assistant superintendent, oversees support for the mental health of the county's teachers and students affected by last year's fires.

Cal Fire firefighters and volunteer search-and-rescue crews look through the rubble for remains of Paradise residents that have been reported missing or unaccounted for on Nov. 13, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

"I remember thinking there has got to be somebody out there who knows how to do all this and knows what we should be doing," Corbin said.

She had to get herself up to speed quickly last year after the Tubbs Fire. "What we experienced, there’s nothing quite like that," Corbin said. "We lost so many homes in such a short period of time."

Corbin found a resource at the University of Southern California's National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and began to tailor materials for teachers and school leaders specifically about fire-related trauma. A year later, she shares that information with other districts.

Taylor, Butte County's superintendent of schools, said he was grateful for Sonoma County's help. Still in the midst of a crisis, he is trying to gather his staff.

One of his first priorities is to find students from the Paradise Unified School District and figure out where they can attend school next. Taylor emphasized that even before the Camp Fire, many of the students in the largely rural county moved around frequently.

The county's homeless coordinator for schools is now in charge of tracking down students from Paradise, according to Taylor.

"This is the toughest job here right now," Taylor said.

State education officials say the constant threat of wildfires has them rethinking how they can help strengthen assistance to districts.

"What we need is a better communication tool kit and landing page for handling disasters," said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

The state may need to permanently staff a team of people who can arrive and give guidance on how to put districts back together again after a fire disaster, according to Roark.

"Last year was the first year for us" on dealing with this level of disaster, Roark said. "Now, it's one after the other."

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