It’s a tinderbox waiting to ignite is how the now retired superintendent of Butte County Schools described his drive up the Feather River Canyon mid-week in April. And he knew what he was seeing.
More than five months have passed since the Paradise area Camp Fire claimed the lives of 86 people, destroyed homes, businesses, a hospital, churches and schools.
Since then we’ve learned of the private struggles, of livelihoods lost, of deaths, fears and sorrows. On April 18, Tim Taylor shared his private and public horrors of attempting to locate students, open and begin to rebuild portions of the Butte County school system, all beginning Nov. 8 as initial reports of smoke filtered in to him.
Here’s a man who went to work one day and his life changed, said Feather River College President Kevin Trutna.
Trutna was introducing Taylor to a group including FRC trustees, some students, several faculty members, but none of the supervisors and wildfire professionals of Plumas County he hoped would be available to take a page from how the Camp Fire unfolded for schools within the path of a raging wildfire.
Trutna had extended his invitation at a board of supervisors’ meeting April 16 to hear Taylor’s first-hand account of the Camp Fire’s devastating impact on some of Butte County’s schools and what it took to calm students, parents, staff, faculty and administrators.
Restore, recover, rebuild
A native Californian from the Bay Area, Taylor has long been familiar with Butte County. He went to college at California State University, Chico, and thought he was ending his career in education in the same county in January.
Taylor called the Camp Fire “by far one of the greatest catastrophes in California’s history.” That was comparing the Camp Fire with major earthquakes and the other wildfires including the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa.
Taylor said he thought it was bad when his school district lost five students in a two-and-a-half-year period prior to the Camp Fire. Car crashes and other unexpected incidents “test who you are,” he said. “Leadership skills will be tested to the “nth” degree.”
They “set the tone,” of things to come. But nothing prepared anyone in the educational world for what happened.
It was 7:13 a.m. the morning of Nov. 8 when Taylor received a call from his executive assistant. They could see smoke coming up the ridge.
A second call informed him that parents were beginning to show up for their children.
“Forty-five minutes later it was sheer noise. I could hear in his voice that we were in code red,” Taylor said about another update. “It was awful. You could hear it in his voice.”
This was when leadership was fully tested, Taylor said. Much of what an educator or an academic administrator does is mandated. “Management is what you do 95 percent of the time.”
The leadership is constantly going over what they are doing to see what can be improved, but nothing prepared them for what was unfolding.
While Butte County schools might not have been prepared for a catastrophic wildfire of the magnitude of the Camp Fire, they were trained to respond and manage other scenarios. “I felt very proud of our team that we’d built up,” he said.
And what he was seeing was that the strongest people were stepping up to meet the needs created by the disaster and many stepping away. “The true leaders stepped up because they had practiced it,” Taylor said.
As previous training took place to address disaster scenarios, Taylor said, “I knew everybody. We had each other’s backs.”
But those who didn’t show up to the trainings regularly really struggled when faced with the overwhelming needs the Camp Fire created.
What Taylor recommended to everyone, schools and other agencies alike, is to implement a leadership plan and to reflect on leadership skills.
What he also learned is that while they were practicing for active shooter drills they would have been better prepared had they trained for a wildfire. The reality was far more likely.
During the Camp Fire, what Taylor did was set up a separate command center for the Butte County Office of Education.
His concerns were for the wellbeing of 32,000 students in K-12 in two districts affected by the fire. He also included students from charter schools and private schools. “Everyone was traumatized,” Taylor said. So what he did was to set up his command center in Oroville away from the main threat of the fire. This wasn’t to hide, but to give people somewhere safe to come.
On that first day when the fire swept into the area from remote Pulga, Taylor said that people were in shock. They were horrified. People were trying to get to safety, trying to get kids out. The “first decisions are critical,” he said. And what he and everyone else he knew was saying, “How in the hell did this happen to us?”
During that first 24-hour shift, one of Taylor’s major concerns was trying to get 4,700 kids off the ridge. “At least they were awake,” he said. If the fire had swept through during the night it would have been far worse.
On the second day of the Camp Fire, Taylor said he was aware of the chaos, the pain and the suffering around him. This was when the trauma kicked in. “Everyone was traumatized,” he said. So many were looking for help and so many were so traumatized they couldn’t rationally decide what they needed.
This was a 22-hour day, Taylor said about the time at work.
This was when Taylor became aware of so much misinformation swirling about. “It was controlling the pace of things,” he explained.
This was also when some of his staff started becoming aware of the true magnitude of the event. One superintendent went to Paradise to see what had occurred. She came back so traumatized that what she told others wasn’t true. Through her reports and those others heard included that a school, church or a home was no longer there when in fact they were still standing. Taylor said that, without meaning to, the misinformation that was spread deeply hurt and created unnecessary worry.
This was a 20-hour day that brought Taylor to his knees. He said he made it home and ended up against a wall absolutely certain he couldn’t go on. He didn’t know what to do and didn’t know what more he could tell his staff. “I was balled up in a corner at home saying, ‘I can’t do this!’”
And then it occurred to him to call for help. “The weakness is not saying you need help,” Taylor said.
Those who arrived were highly trained and focused on what needed to be done. Three public information officers arrived, administration was brought in from around the state, and a specialist arrived to take over operations for a charter school head and 16 others.
Everyone accepted the new offers of help and the experience that was offered except those in the Paradise schools, Taylor said. “We’re not trained to bring people into our nuclear families,” Taylor said. “And it hurt them a lot.”
The school administrators, staff and faculty in the Paradise area were so traumatized they wouldn’t trust anyone from the outside, Taylor said.
What Taylor had to do was find someone those people would trust.
Taylor said that he became aware of the fact that firefighters and cops have learned to ask for help — and they get it. “Schools don’t do that.”
By this time FEMA (Federal Emergency Manage Agency) was more involved. Communications were improved, and 2,500 fire trucks were in the area along with fire personnel and all of the support people and equipment. By day 4 it was evident the “smoke and pain wouldn’t go away.”
One of the main focuses for Taylor and other administrators was getting schools cleaned up and students back to school. For the schools that were burned they had to find new places to put the students. While this was one of Taylor’s main goals, he said he walked into one school to find the staff and faculty ironing clothes that were donated to the fire victims.
That wasn’t what he wanted to see. He immediately had them get rid of the clothing, send it to another agency to deal with and get on with getting things ready for schools to open.
The national media had also arrived in full force. Taylor said that the local media was there to help, but the national media was after the stories. When the fact that 1,000 people or more were missing it gained international attention. It was also hard to keep local administrators and school trustees from getting sucked into the appeal of appearing before millions on television.
What the national media was attuned to was the 5 o’clock feed. That is having something ready for the evening news hour.
Of course the national media was also good. Donations have brought in $100 million to the schools — a photo that went nationwide of a burning school bus helped promote that.
This was the day that Taylor brought his 650 leaders and administrators together for a meeting. He invited Sheriff Kory Honea to speak. I “love that guy,” Taylor said about the sheriff’s leadership throughout the disaster.
Taylor said they all met in Pleasant Valley for a full debriefing. “It was the best decision we made in the first week,” he added.
Part of that focus was how to meet the trauma needs of more than 1,000 teachers. They had to be prepared and ready to receive training to help the students they would soon be seeing again. What he learned and what he was afraid of was “Your teachers are going to be a complete f***** mess,” he was told.
Reality set in.
In his presentation, Taylor said there are three stages to a catastrophe: recover, restore and rebuild.
During the first few days of the Camp Fire everyone from outside areas wanted to help. Taylor understands that need, but the reality from the inside is in attempting to protect things from thieves is nearly overwhelming. Finding places to put things was so difficult. Setting up some sort of an accountability system was hard. He said by the end he received enough backpacks to supply all the children in China.
He said he was trying to focus on getting schools open again and bags of gift cards, money and truck loads of stuff were showing up that had to be dealt with.
Taylor believes it will take 20 years for the Paradise area to reach the point it was before the Camp Fire.
Taylor was asked if he thought they tried to get schools back open too early? In hindsight he thinks they did. In the face of the catastrophe, a semester off would have been a good thing.