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

May 11, 2019

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. - Roy Applegate, Butte County Office of Education

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. - Dena Kapalis, Paradise Unified School District

"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."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Six months ago, the deadly Camp Fire devastated the small Northern California town of Paradise. It was the deadliest fire in the state's history and claimed more than 80 lives and destroyed thousands of homes. Since then, residents have been grappling with rebuilding their lives while dealing with the ongoing trauma from the fires.

Now that the initial shock has worn off, mental health officials in Butte County schools say that students are experiencing a second wave of trauma. From member station KQED, Michelle Wiley has more.

MICHELLE WILEY, BYLINE: A backhoe is lifting pieces of desks and twisted hunks of metal from what used to be Paradise Elementary School and dropping them into a nearby truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

WILEY: For students that used to go here and others impacted by the deadly Camp Fire, they've had a lot to deal with in the six months since the area was ravaged - housing and security, a loss of routine and the ongoing trauma from the devastation. And now, experts say, it's getting worse.

DENA KAPSALIS: A lot of acting out, tiredness, inability to focus...

WILEY: Dena Kapsalis is director of student services for the Paradise Unified School District.

KAPSALIS: ...Shutting down, being unable to maintain relationships with adults or peers.

WILEY: The trauma response team in Butte County knew they'd start seeing the second wave of symptoms from kids around now, especially on the six-month mark. Significant anniversaries like that often trigger survivors of disasters into reliving moments of the traumatic event. Kapsalis says counselors try to view these signs of trauma as forms of communication.

KAPSALIS: With kids, it's right out there on the table, and then we can respond. You know, as the adults in the community, we can respond quickly and maybe more accurately to what's really happening with them. So they're communicating loss. They're communicating a need for help, a need for support.

WILEY: But while kids may show their symptoms more obviously, for counselors, seeing those signs in teachers can be even more difficult.

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

WILEY: Counselors have started making themselves available in staff rooms and hallways so they can encourage teachers to talk about what they're experiencing and connect them with services. But despite a need for mental health support across the board, officials say they're still struggling to hire enough counselors.

Roy Applegate helps lead the trauma response team in Butte County schools. He says they currently have six schools that have requested help, but they don't have any staff to send them.

ROY APPLEGATE: It's a little bit like rain in the desert in the summer. It just - as soon as it hits the ground, it disappears. We can give our counselors who we have hired as many hours as they need, and they're full up all the time. And they're working to the max.

WILEY: Applegate even came out of retirement to help out. So did fire recovery counselor Pamela Beeman.

PAMELA BEEMAN: My husband is my witness. 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, and we need more people. So you just can't say no to that.

WILEY: Beeman says she's committed to finishing out the spring term at her school but doesn't know if she can continue on after that.

BEEMAN: Those schools are really needy. They (laughter) really use the help.

WILEY: Counselors say as much as people in Butte County want to be over the trauma, the recovery period is just getting started. And California's next fire season is right around the corner. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Wiley in Butte County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.