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Youth counselors in Camp Fire burn scar support students while navigating their own trauma

Paradise Scholarship Foundation

Three years after the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise and surrounding communities, school counselors practicing in the burn scar are still working to support youth. But as the years have gone on, it has become harder and harder to find mental health professionals.

Butte County Office of Education Trauma Response and Recovery Coordinator Scott Lindstrom said the shortage of counselors isn't unique to Paradise, but it has made caring for their students a challenge.

"It's a mixed bag, because initially, we were able to get a lot of people who were shortly retired and able to come back," said Lindstrom. "Now some of the people have had to move back to their retired lives, rightfully so. But what we're seeing community-wide and nationwide is a shortage.”

In the years since, many students have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest in different ways in their lives.

Robert Lester is a trauma recovery counselor who was contracted to work with Paradise Unified School District. He said addressing students' situations can be challenging, given the wide range of needs they have.

"For some, there's still a need in terms of just basic needs — housing, food, water, shelter. A certain base security," Lester said. "For others, the needs are grieving, as a way of reconciling that the town they grew up in … is gone. It’s changed the landscape of their life in many respects."

The Butte County Office of Education, or BCOE, has overseen students’ emergency and emotional needs. BCOE School and Community Wellness Advisor Matt Reddam said the fire presented a unique challenge, even for those experienced in the field of emotional care.

"I've been working in the field of trauma for a long time. But what we experienced after the fire … I don't think any of us really were prepared for the enormity of that, for losing the town as quickly and as completely," Reddam said. "The folks that we’re supporting, many of them were impacted themselves."

When working in the face of such a huge tragedy, school counselors also face their own hardships while trying to help their students recover. Lester said he fears the work won't be enough to address such a massive event.

"I struggle to know what is good counseling in the wake of disaster," Lester said. "So (the student and I) have a good conversation for an hour, and maybe the student leaves feeling a little better than when they came in. But when they leave that room, I know that they're going back to the brute facts of a reality of a decimated town, and the total disruption of that. What good then is an hour in the face of that?"

Reddam agreed. He said the emotional toll the fire takes can grow and compound over time as the initial high of overwhelming support starts to fade

"You have a realization that this isn't going to end anytime soon. The fire is out, but it isn't going to end," Reddam said. "You're not only holding the pain that you as a human being are experiencing, but you're holding the pain of the kids that you love ... you're holding the pain of your co-workers, and you're holding the pain of the community — and being asked to do your job."

As for what happens next, Reddam said the last step in the recovery process is finding meaning in the trauma.

"It's really hard to make meaning out of a wildfire. Because there's nobody to hate, and there's nobody to rage at. I think making meaning forces us to look back and say 'I wish that never happened’ … But the only way I can move forward is to mine out the ways that I survived.”

That timeline looks different for everyone, Reddam said. Some did that right after the fire, and some may still not in the coming years. He said that's all okay — it just takes time.