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Q&A: School destroyed in the Dixie Fire on the road to recovery

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California Governor's Office of Emergency Services
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Portable classrooms at Plumas Charter School in Taylorsville in March of 2022.

When the Dixie Fire devastated the town of Greenville last August, it destroyed the Greenville Learning Center. The school is run by Plumas Charter School and served about 50 students at the time. NSPR's Alec Stutson spoke with Taletha Washburn, executive director of Plumas Charter School about their efforts to recover and rebuild over the last year.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On how the Dixie Fire affected the students and staff

The fire was very, very dramatic. All of our communities were evacuated at one point or another. And then the town of Greenville did burn down along with our school site, we had to start school late because of the evacuations and the very real threat of this fire. It was super unpredictable and burning so hot, it was terrible. More than I would say 35% of our school population was affected last year with the Dixie Fire, through evacuations, or losing homes, or knowing somebody that lost homes.

When the town burned down our first priority was to locate all of our people. Whoever was willing to work came in, and we were able to locate all of our staff members and make sure that they were safe, make sure they were evacuated. And then we did the same with our student populations over there, we contacted every person, we tried to get them resources. That’s all we did for close to two weeks, was make sure we were helping any way we could. Once we knew where everybody was, we tried to regroup and find an alternate location to offer school for our one location. And we did that.

On the new school site

It's a modular classroom building. So it's three classrooms, an office and two bathrooms. It's approximately 2100 square feet. All of our stuff is pretty small relative to urban areas in California, but it's the same size as the site we lost.

We do have about 30 students who are now on that site. Actually, we have a site next to that building as well, because the building didn't get placed back in Greenville, because Greenville was still decimated, there's still hardly anything there. It was placed in Taylorsville, which is 10 miles away from Greenville. And we already had another school site there for our high school program. So it was our elementary building that had burned, and so our junior high and high school students also used that building. So we probably have about 50 kids who are in and out of the building now, but only 30 of those are elementary age.

On the challenges of getting back up and running after the fire

We had to rebuild everything. So we had to get all of our curriculum and technology and furniture. We had to hurry up and get everything reestablished. We had to set up a new space. All of our teachers in Indian Valley were directly affected by this fire. One lost her home, another of my classified staff, she lost her home. That's hard, I can't even imagine. The emotional trauma of that, we had a very traumatized staff.

For a traumatized staff to try to rebuild something is really hard and they struggled, we all struggled. There was a lot of emotional stuff that came into that. And then even once the kids came, you have a traumatized staff trying to support a traumatized student body. Our counselors were on deck big time for everybody.

On how the school worked to help students through their trauma

We wrote a couple of grants. I was able to double my counseling staff. We made therapy available to any student and any family that needed it. That was one thing that we did, we also wrote another grant that we're just going to implement this year through the California Department of Recreation that will allow us to do more specific outdoor activities to reconnect kids to nature. We live in this very rural area and half of our county burned down. How do you continue to enjoy your rural area when what you look at are like matchsticks out of a lot of windows still? We're implementing that one this year, but we applied for that grant last year.

But I think last year, being a safe place was the most important thing. Kids need normalcy. Kids need to get back into routine. Kids need to know that the adults in their lives are there for them and that we can all kind of get through a crisis together.

Alec Stutson grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Radio Journalism, 20th/21st Century Literature, and a minor in Film Studies. He is a huge podcast junkie, as well as a movie nerd and musician.