Research has shown trauma at a young age has long lasting impacts. When the Camp Fire swept through Paradise, California, in 2018, the evacuees included more than 2,500 children, many of whom fled on the same buses they rode to school. Teachers recounted to Newsy escaping the flames with children, believing they were going to die.
"When Some of these kids left the camp fire in buses or things burning around them," Scott Kennelly, Interim Director of Butte County Behavioral Health told Newsy. "And the new school season started or the fall started. And kids were being bused back into Paradise. Some of the first time ever and getting on that bus was for some kids very traumatic. They had literally a physical response like 'Oh my gosh everything's coming back. I've got a lot of anxiety.' It's very triggering for them."
Child specialists in Paradise tell Newsy that now, they need to help the youngest survivors of 2018’s Camp Fire get back to being normal kids again. Mary Ann Cleary runs Pee Wee Preschooll. A number of children here are living in temporary homes while their families rebuild.
"They don't have a choice. They have to be resilient," she said.
An August 2019 report showed that even before the fire, Butte County had California's highest rate of adverse childhood experiences, which were often linked to preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health challenges. The report warned the experience of the fire may compound those existing issues.
"I met with a family on a personal level. Their 3 year old was having some problems," Jess Mercer, a Crisis Counselor, Child Specialist and Art Therapist with California Hope recalled to Newsy. "And so I started doing some loose art with her and talking and I was like oh your boots are on backwards and she's like "yeah, every day." I was like, "Wow it's really cool. Why do you wear them like that every day?" "Well I wear 'em like this the day of the fire and that's how I got out." And she was 3 which means that memory happened when she was 2 and it was so vivid still."
Experts recommend establishing strong routines, like school, for children exposed to trauma, to help reassure kids that they’re safe. A 1.6 million dollar grant also allowed Butte County’s board of education to hire and place 25 to 30 part-time “fire recovery” counselors in its schools. Cal Hope, a nonprofit Jess Mercer works for, sends specialists like her into schools for crisis counseling and psychotherapeutic activities.
"It's so different. We don't have the water resources or the playgrounds or the one school doesn't even have a cafeteria that to sit on the floor in a gym and eat," Mercer said.
Last year the school district had to adapt. Classes were held at schools in nearby communities and even a former hardware store in Paradise. This year it's more of the same. Two elementary schools burned down so they're having classes here at a former Intermediate School. Resilience is part of the curriculum too.
"There's the trauma counselors, the specialists. We do what's called mindfulness, 'mindful littles', which is a coping and skill techniques on how to develop resiliency skills. We're doing a lot with the high school kids on resilience whose skills that we're not going to let the fire define us,"Michelle John, the Superintendent of Paradise Unified School District, told Newsy.
"They need to be heard. I think we need to pay a lot of attention to our young people who to me are the next generation of infrastructure for our town," Mercer said.