Jay Leaird used to spend his afternoons mulling over math problems and texting his friends. Now, the 17-year-old devotes most of his time to filling out applications for things like financial assistance and food stamps. It’s not how he imagined his last year of high school, but after the Camp fire wiped out his Northern California community in November, the challenge of entering adulthood has been an even steeper climb.
“Staying in school is the hardest thing to do now,” the senior said.
Months after the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history destroyed more than 153,000 acres and killed 85 people, students are grappling with how to press ahead without things as basic as textbooks and WiFi, let alone a roof over their heads.
For the past two weeks, Jay has been living in a gray camping tent pitched in the woods off Imperial Way in the wildfire-scarred California town of Magalia. It’s his fourth new “home” since the Camp fire rendered the quiet, woodsy neighborhoods where he grew up into seas of debris and yellow caution tape.
After scrambling to find a stable shelter, the high school senior, his girlfriend, his dad, and his dad’s girlfriend finally found an old trailer and parked it on his uncle’s front yard in neighboring Tehama County. But in the cramped space, Jay’s strained relationship with his father erupted.
“One day I got in a big fight with my dad and he told me to get my stuff out of the trailer and have a nice life,” he said.
Jay is slim, shy, and wears black-framed glasses. He loves math, and wants to be an engineer. He doesn’t want to be in a tent, but says his family is too strapped to help him, especially since his grandmother is now housing his mom and other family members who also lost their home. School counselors who presented him with other options said he doesn’t want to burden strangers or leave his girlfriend.
To shower, he goes to friends' houses. At his tent, he uses a flashlight to do his homework and get ready for bed. If he doesn’t have access to Wi-Fi and needs to double-check something for an assignment, he’ll turn on his girlfriend’s hotspot for a few minutes, but not too long, “because phone bills are another thing.”
“I’m kind of a wallflower,” he said. “I had kind of grown up before the fire and now I’m only trying to think of one day at a time. It’s difficult, but I keep positive and keep working forward.”
Before the fire, Jay’s home life and relationship with his parents, who are divorced, were a bit rocky, but for the most part, his days were stable. He had his own room, his school bus picked him up at the same time every morning, and he ate lunch with his three close friends.
"Now I don't really see them," he said.
He had planned to graduate early, with hopes of attending Chico State University. But now, like thousands of other teenagers in the region trying to regain a sense of normalcy, thinking of the future feels overwhelming, and many days, impossible.
The Camp fire crippled Paradise’s educational infrastructure. It destroyed three campuses, including Jay’s high school, Ridgeview, and forced Paradise High School to close, scattering students across Northern California. Since November, teachers have taught classes in an airport, a mall, and a LensCrafters as other districts struggled to absorb displaced students.
School officials say the upheaval has taken its toll on a district where about 65% of students already qualified for free lunch and many had experienced trauma before the fire.
Last year at Paradise High School, only two seniors were in danger of not graduating. Now, officials say 31 students are close to failing a required class.
“They are in survival mode,” said Principal Loren Lighthall, who recently announced he was resigning and moving districts because he couldn’t find a stable home for his family. “They’re living in these really tough circumstances and now that the shock is wearing off, the reality of how hard things will be for the foreseeable future is catching up.”
About 500 Paradise high schoolers currently shuffle between periods in a windowless office warehouse in Chico that Lighthall jokingly refers to as the “fortress.” About 200 others are taking classes online. Nearby, a few hundred middle schoolers go to class every day in a vacant Orchard Supply Hardware store now filled with books and science experiments. A few miles away, Jay and 90 of his classmates pile into four rooms at a Boys & Girls Club, where, every day, their teachers have to unpack and repack crates of supplies.
Jay is still trying to acclimate to his new normal. Breakfast is usually an afterthought. To get to his school’s independent study program or the teen center that’s helping him get back on his feet, he walks a mile to catch the B-Line bus to Chico.
“I try and be on time to everything,” he said. “But a lot of times I miss the bus.”
He’d like to be in school more, but he’s been overwhelmed just trying to get by. He’s been fixated on trying to obtain a copy of his birth certificate so he can get an ID, so he can get a job, so he can try to get an apartment and have a stable place to apply to college, so he can restart, so he can move forward.
Jay’s most recent highlight was successfully setting up his Electronic Benefits Transfer card for food stamps. With his $300 a month, he shops at the gas station and Dollar General. On a recent night, he loaded up on pizzas, top ramen, and microwavable burritos, which he usually cooks at a friend's house.
A lot of teens are in Jay’s position. John Christie, a teacher at Ridgeview who also travels to meet displaced students at trailer parks, library benches, and restaurants in faraway towns because they don’t have a way to get to school, said many had been in unstable living situations and supporting themselves before the fire. But because they lost birth certificates or were never officially on leases or utility bills, “there’s very little that legitimizes them with FEMA or the Red Cross, so they can’t get those services.”
“Schoolwork is a silly thought when they’re trying to find food for the night,” said Christie, who is living in a travel trailer 200 miles away from Chico with his wife and three kids. “We’ve gotten creative in removing barriers so they can be successful, like for those trying to find a job and are dealing with FEMA, we tie that back to class credit. We call it real-life learning.”
Students have to do most of their classwork online since schools lost their textbooks in the fire, which is hard to do in trailers because Wi-Fi and power are spotty. The teens barely get to see their friends or partake in their favorite after-school clubs and activities and are sharing small, foreign rooms with siblings, cousins, and parents. The hardest part, they say, is learning how to cope with the waves of sadness that hit often and usually without warning.
“This is our life now and it’s so weird,” 13-year-old Jessica Hernandez said. “We just had to adjust to this new life that no one really wants but we’re doing it. I’ll be having a good day and then I think about one thing and then get so sad.”
Jessica is in her last year at Paradise Intermediate School, which has taken over the former Orchard hardware store. Their desks started as shelves, and small groups filled in rows below aisle signs for laundry detergent and lightbulbs. For PE, she and dozens of other middle schoolers gather near the registers or in the garden area of the warehouse to stretch and play games.
When Jessica’s having a particularly hard day, like when she realized she lost all her baby photos in the fire, she’ll drop into the 20-person group chat that one of her friends started right after the fire.
“We keep tabs and see how we’re doing,” she said. “One of my friends just went and saw her house for the third time and texted about it. Sometimes someone will need a place to stay.”
Mariah Coleman, a senior at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, is also still struggling to process all she lost that day.
“I have to admit, I have more bad days than good days,” the teen said. “I had life set and planned before the fire, I was going to graduate high school with honor roll, which I still plan on accomplishing, and then get a full-time job for the summer and go to college. But now I am very lost and confused about what to do.”
Her family lost two homes, one of which her grandfather built and had been in her family for forty years. Now, the 17-year-old is crammed in a trailer with her father and little sister. The girls share the bed and he takes the couch.
When her alarm goes off at 5:20 a.m., she tells herself to stay positive and that, as tough as it is, the best thing for her is to go to school every day.
“I think about how I am going to get through this day,” she said. “I try and stay strong for the three of us, to keep them in a good and positive mood.”
By 6:55 a.m., she and her sister, a freshman, hop into her ’98 Toyota Tacoma truck and drive about an hour to school to catch the free breakfast before first period. The gas costs her $50 a week, so she got a better job as a lead umpire for a softball little league. She loves the work, but it’s a commitment. She usually finishes cleaning the bases and taking down the snack bar around 9 p.m. Then she drives about 45 minutes back to the trailer and pulls out her homework.
On the weekends she uses the generator to make coffee and, sometimes, scrambled eggs and maple sausage.
“Due to the fire, I decided to take more responsibility with my job to help my dad,” she said. “It’s really hard for my dad. Trying to get power to our trailer hurt him mentally and physically, but he tries to stay as positive as possible.”
Students are persevering, though, in spite of the trauma, and the schools have transformed into support groups.
More and more college acceptance letters cover the otherwise drab gray walls of Paradise High’s office space. Some sports teams have reassembled, practicing at fields across the county. At Ridgeview, several juniors are earning their high school diplomas early this year, grades are up this quarter, and attendance is steady.
“I'm on a mission,” Mariah said. “It's my last month of school and my last year of high school and I'm going to graduate with honor roll. I can send you my grades if you want, when I do.” ●