county boards
County Perspective
Standing strong among the ashes
Navigating the aftermath of the Camp Fire
By Mike Walsh, CSBA Immediate Past President and trustee, Butte COE
Mike Walsh
Last year, as the President of CSBA, and the previous year as the President-elect, I, like so many other people, watched in disbelief and shock at the wildfires as they broke out across the state. From the Tubbs Fire in October 2017 that devastated Sonoma County to the Carr Fire of August 2018, I heard firsthand from board members across the state just how heartbreaking it is to have students and families lose everything in the blink of an eye. At CSBA, we interviewed board members and superintendents so that we could better understand the challenges in rebuilding and help other school districts prepare in the unlikely event that they were ravaged by disaster. Tips like:

  • Ensure communications and updates are available in languages commonly spoken by district students and families
  • Be prepared to offer refuge to nonstudents and serve as a community shelter
  • Prepare for donations
  • Help find care and activities for children when schools are closed
These were just a few of the tips offered in the spring 2018 CSBA California Schools magazine article “Trial by Fire: Schools rebuild after the 2017 wildfires.” (I strongly recommend that if you don’t have that particular edition handy, go online to, where you can download an electronic copy of the article.) And still none of that fully prepared me for the magnitude of the Camp Fire.

Here is why: The Camp Fire forced the entire towns of Paradise, Berry Creek and Concow to immediately evacuate. Those that suddenly found themselves homeless and devastated were friends of mine from high school and college. They were work colleagues that I had come to know and care for from jobs that I’ve held over the years, including many of our own Butte County Office of Education staff. Some of them were the students that I’ve coached in sports that are now raising children of their own. I wasn’t fully prepared because this time the story was personal. We were all victims helping victims.

The impact of the fire was difficult to fathom at the time. Oddly enough it has become even more challenging to make sense of as we continue to work toward normalcy. The fire left 410 education staff without a home. Those staffers worked in multiple districts across the county; again, 38 of those staffers work at BCOE. There were a total of 4,293 students displaced, of which 3,409 were students from Paradise. The remaining 884 were from Golden Feather Union Elementary School District, Chico Unified School District and Durham Unified School District. And more than 400 students were from two charter programs in Butte County. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly 14 percent of the total student population in the county. You can almost be sure that everyone in the county knows someone personally affected by the fire.

Here is how we survived: we got help. The number of staff from other county offices and districts that immediately came to assist was amazing. It can’t be overstated how important it is to have help from folks that are not in survival mode helping others to survive. Our board fully supported the superintendent and the cabinet as they took on unfamiliar roles. The focus was to find the best possible solution for students, families and staff.

Tough decisions were made, like closing all schools located in Butte County for three weeks. It was not only due to incredibly toxic and unhealthy air quality, but also because of the massive undertaking required to coordinate the emergency services and relocation of more than 5,000 students and staff. The communication that came from our “command center” was constant and consistent every day, seven days a week, for an entire month. And our county board did whatever we could do to support everyone’s efforts. Each board member took on a different responsibility such as helping coordinate trauma support, updating other state agencies and working with state legislators to secure long-term funding.

For the next three weeks, our only focus at Butte COE was finding a way to reconnect students with their teachers. The challenge for us was that our students were displaced, with almost every one of them having no home to return to after the evacuations were lifted and nearly an entire town having been wiped off the map in the middle of the school year. That meant that every student, traditional school or charter school, public or private school, was in crisis and we chose to serve them all. As one board member from the Santa Barbara Unified School District reminded us in the aftermath of one of their tragedies, “Our schools are the heart of our community.”