A year after Oregon wildfires, schools bring comfort and painful reminders
A year after wildfires shut Oregon schools for more than two weeks, three boys in a southern Oregon school library are happy just to be able to hang out with their friends again.
Talent Elementary fifth graders Jonathan Escalera, Johan Rodriguez and Yair Ramos chatter like they haven’t a care, but if asked, they share traumatic stories of losing homes and pets in the Almeda fire.
All three now live outside their Phoenix-Talent School District in nearby Medford. It’s a longer bus ride, but they agree they don’t mind. Ramos says he has more time to eat, and Escalera says it’s good because they have more time to play truth or dare (although he admits you mostly can just do truth on a bus).
Returning to a nearly normal school day is a pleasure and relief for staff, students and parents, but the joys of the rebuilding community often flow out of the pain for what was lost.
It’s been a bittersweet year since the Sept. 8, 2020, Almeda fire destroyed more than 2,300 homes in southern Oregon, sweeping through Talent and Phoenix. The fire delayed the start of the school year by more than two weeks.
While sometimes saddened by the community’s changes in the past year, people talk frequently about how the community has rallied together, the strength and love they have seen, and the children’s resiliency. They see an added gift with in-person learning.
Parent Jessica Nawoichik gets a little choked up about how glad she is to have her children in school again. Jose Torres, who found new housing nearby, proudly sends his kindergartener to the same classroom he once sat in. Kelsey Lynch emphasizes a lot of people are still hurting. Her family feels lucky to be back in school, especially because her children can see friends who no longer live in Talent.
A year ago, State Route 99 through Talent and Phoenix was lined with blackened trees, burnt-out cars and incinerated buildings.
A stranger visiting Talent or Phoenix now wouldn’t realize that just months before there had been widespread devastation. The state officially finished its debris clean-up a week before the fire’s anniversary, although some properties still need work. Many of the trees close to the road have been removed, and blackened earth has been reclaimed by green scrub. The husks of cars are mostly gone, and piles of charred rubble have been replaced by weed-choked empty lots and chain-link fencing.
Fresh wood construction sprouts everywhere, and new pads and hookups await a return of the mobile homes where so many low-income families had lived.
“Going through town is a constant reminder of what we went through, the fear and the trauma of those two days,” said parent Tami Chambers.
Santiam Canyon and McKenzie, the two other districts most heavily affected by the September 2020 wildfires that stretched nearly the length of Oregon, are facing similar experiences.
The Holiday Farm fire destroyed about 400 homes and caused minor property damage on the McKenzie campus east of Eugene. The district had to remove close to 800 campus trees, according to Superintendent Lane Tompkins, the new view a daily reminder for students and staff.
The fire knocked out internet to the area, and the district and region are working to build back with redundancy so they are not cut off again.
Santiam Canyon Superintendent Todd Miller said it’s disorienting the way the landscape keeps changing, first with the Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires and then as the dead forest is logged off.
About 15% of the families in the district between Salem and Bend lost their homes, and rebuilding is slow because material costs have gone through the roof and contractors are hard to find. The district is busing students from communities such as Salem and Lebanon, and Miller expects that to continue for years.
Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said nearly 200 district students are living outside the boundaries, many in hotel rooms or other temporary housing. Neighboring school districts have been helping by picking up the children and dropping them off at common locations for the Phoenix-Talent buses.
Barry said the fires have expanded already great district relationships, opening the door to more collaboration.
Barry was named the 2022 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, which he credits to the work of his entire staff this past year.
Phoenix-Talent schools have been low key about the fire anniversaries. They want to give students space and support to talk but they don’t want to retraumatize students by bringing it up unbidden. So far, students don’t talk about it much in classes.
If pressed, though, many students tell terrifying tales with disconnected calm.
Eighth grader Serrina Escamilla recounted having to walk under a bridge with flames on it to meet a parent to escape. She says in the same breath, “It’s not a sensitive subject” and “It was traumatizing.”
The district has stepped up its mental health support, hiring more counselors and holding regular lessons on social and emotional care. Educators expect students’ trauma will impact learning for years.
Phoenix High School has adjusted its schedule for longer class periods so students don’t have to take work home. Principal Toby Walker said more high school students are putting in significant hours at jobs, either to help their families or because they got used to it during distance learning. He also said fewer students are visiting counselors to talk about post-secondary plans.
“They are overwhelmed and in survival mode,” he said.
Laura Millette, family liaison at Phoenix Elementary, says she has been working seven days a week since the fires. She describes her job as breaking down barriers to students’ education, whether that is finding a family food and rental assistance or teaching a mother how to drive.
Millette said a lot of families are grasping for stability right now. She said children are riding the bus an hour or more from out of district because they don’t want any more changes.
“This is all that is holding them together,” Millette said. “The housing is gone, but the school is still here. It’s the only thing they have that is still the same.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA