How Paradise High School students are moving forward

In the three months since a fire virtually wiped out their town, everything in the lives of Paradise High School students has been temporary — their housing, their day-to-day routines, the faceless office park they attend classes in.

This week, the students gathered for their first assembly as a full student body to hear a message of hope and resilience. It was a moment for them to reflect on everything they’ve been through, the things that have given them strength and the road ahead.

On the day the Camp Fire scorched their home, Paradise High senior Sarah Peters and her family moved into a house that her father, a contractor, had been remodeling. The home had an unfinished kitchen and no paint on the walls.

For two days, the family huddled together in the shell of a home in Chico, covered with blankets because they didn’t have heat.

The owners have continued to let them live in the unfinished home since November, when the flames vaporized thousands of buildings in the northern California town, including the homes of many of Peters’ classmates at Paradise High.

About 900 students attended Paradise High before the fire. Today about 500 students are on a temporary campus in an office complex, and about 175 take classes online. Some struggled with being separated from friends.

But they have found ways to cope, and seniors like Peters wrote college admissions essays about how they learned to persevere.

“I think everyone at PHS, especially the seniors, we’re survivors,” said Peters, 17. “In a way, we’ve gained a lot, even in comparison to what we’ve lost.”

An emotional message

On Tuesday, the entire Paradise High student body — about 500 students — gathered to listen to Kevin Atlas, who is believed to be the first person with one hand ever to play Division I basketball.

He created a series called “Believe in You,” which aims to teach young people to support each other. His visit to Paradise High was part of a 70-school tour sponsored by a company called Varsity Brands, which supplies schools with sporting equipment, classrooms and yearbooks.

Standing 6 feet, 11 inches, he developed into a high school star in California — but then he broke his leg in a game. Depressed about his college prospects and having lost his father to cancer, he said he downed a bottle Vicodin to try to take his life. He overcame his depression.

They should keep in mind the bigger picture, even though the present looks bleak, he told them.

“You are going to have the craziest legacy. You don’t know how important you are,” he told them. “I look at you guys and I see the future.”

Students scattered

The Camp Fire, which broke out on November 8, 2018, was the deadliest in state history, claiming 85 lives. It destroyed three campuses, and damaged classrooms at other schools including Paradise High, according to Ed Gregorio, a principal at Ponderosa Elementary, which was heavily damaged.

Students in the Paradise Unified District returned to classes about a month after the fire. About half of the students in the district relocated to nearby districts, other parts of California, and across the country, school officials said.

Austyn Swarts, a 17-year-old Paradise senior, says it was painful starting over at a new school after his family moved to Red Bluff, northwest of Paradise.

He returned to Paradise High three weeks ago.

“If I had to use one word, I feel safe,” he said.

He and his mother had been staying with family and friends last year before they moved into a rental property in November. Four days later, the Camp Fire destroyed it.

“You finally get something that you need, and it was kind of taken from you. It was like a tease,” he said.

Now he’s been staying with family and friends again, sleeping on spare beds and couches.

Creating a sense of normalcy

Paradise High’s temporary location in an impersonal office complex didn’t feel like a school at first. There are no walls to separate many classrooms. So students and teachers put up posters to make it resemble their old campus. “Teachers are heroes,” one poster said.

Another featured a drawing of a pine tree and said “Bobcat Family,” referring to the school’s mascot.

The posters are one of the things that made school start to feel like normal again, Rickards said.

Some students worked in classrooms separated by dividers. Others worked at computers in open spaces with electrical lines snaking out of ceiling tiles.

And the kindness of one of Rickards’ teachers also helped.

Her theater and chorus teacher asked the students if they needed anything to help them cope. Rickards told him she wanted to go on a chorus trip.

In December, with his help, she performed with the chorus at the El Rey Theater in Chico.

Paradise High principal Loren Lighthall said teachers tried to create a sense of stability because students have lost friends, their churches and their school.

“The students go to the same classes, with the same kids, with the same friends, with the same teachers at the same time,” Lighthall said.

“They did not have to change schedules or drop classes. We made it normal.”

Living in flux, looking ahead

Paradise High senior Lilly Rickards, 18, lost the house in Paradise where she lived with her mother and two siblings.

“After the fire I felt like school was not the most important thing, it was about family,” she said. She now lives with a friend and another sibling, Bryanna.

They share a bed, she said, and “Bryanna complains that I kick her in the middle of the night.”

For a little while after the fire, Nathan Dailey was living in a friend’s converted school bus with his two siblings because the studio apartment his parents moved into couldn’t fit everyone. They were “just getting through life on the bus,” said Dailey, 17, who has since moved into a bigger apartment with his family.

The Paradise valedictorian wrote about the lessons he learned from the fire in his admissions essays to several schools, including University of California, Berkeley.

Like some students, he has accepted that the fire destroyed his home. He took a reporter back to the spot where his home once stood and playfully jumped on the hood of his charred car.

“You just got to have a good attitude about it and just kind of see the positives,” Dailey said.

Rickards had planned to get a tattoo for her birthday last year — she’d wanted an infinity symbol with the word “Sister,” like her two older sisters have.

But before she went through with it, the fire leveled Paradise, a place known for its lush pine trees. After the fire, she decided to get a tattoo of a half-burned pine tree on her right arm.

“The tree is half burned,” she said, “because there is hope to rebuild and regrow.”

Now Paradise seniors are focusing on life after the fire, life after graduation.

Rickards wants to become a veterinarian. Dailey has already received an early decision acceptance to Berkeley.

And Peters, who wants to attend the University of California, Davis, has come to terms with her loss.

“I’m not happy about it, but I’m at peace,” she said.

“I’m always one for moving forward and pressing on.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the following errors: Ponderosa Elementary School was heavily damaged, not destroyed, the spelling of Nathan Dailey and Loren Lighthall’s last names, and to reflect the correct location of the El Rey Theatre and of Lilly Rickards’ former home.