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Paradise Principal Discusses Next Steps After Leaving Home To Escape The Wildfire


The children of Paradise, Calif., will go back to school tomorrow, three weeks after their hometown was devastated by the deadliest fire in California history. Many school buildings were destroyed, and many families are still living in temporary housing. That includes Loren Lighthall's family. He's the principal of the local high school. We talked to him just days after he was forced to leave his home. And we reached out to him again to check back in. Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are your family doing? Have you been able to return to where your home was and see what's left?

LIGHTHALL: I was able to return once. Of course, there's nothing left. And they are going to lift the evacuation order for Wednesday, just for enough time to get us in there to see our homes and sift through the rubble. But it's devastating. I mean, everything is basically leveled. It looks like a warzone. And it is difficult to lose some of the things - my dad was - came just after the landing at Incheon in Korea, and his Marine uniform's gone. And there's just lots of things like that - journals and so forth - that you're not going to get back. And it's tough to just see it all gone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We learned this week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is only starting the process of getting families into trailers that could become their homes for the foreseeable future. So where have your family and your students' families been living? Are you still staying with friends?

LIGHTHALL: Most people are staying with friends or in shelters or in cars or anywhere that they can find a bed. And I think as the reality has set in, it's become even more difficult for people to deal with because their support systems are gone - their church, their friends, their schools, their work. The unfortunate thing is there's 52,000 evacuees in Chico. And the surrounding areas can't even come close to housing all of those people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I want to ask you - what are your early impressions of the government response to this disaster? Have you gotten what you need? Could they have done better?

LIGHTHALL: I think that the response has been pretty good. I can tell you from businesses, it's been incredible. VANS is here giving out free shoes. Sierra Pacific has given free meals and sweatshirts and donations. I think the government has some institutional barriers because they can't just plop down trailers in Paradise because there's no water. There's no electricity. There's no utilities and services that makes that easy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you about your school now. Are you ready for your students to start classes again tomorrow?

LIGHTHALL: We're ready. There's only 13 days left in this semester, so we have a place at the Chico Mall. And we're going to do it online learning so that kids can finish this semester, get their credits from no matter where they are. If they're in Texas, they can finish this semester. And then in January, we're going to have a more traditional school that they're used to going to. But I think school for the next 13 days is going to be less about academics and more about trauma and just feeling safe and being together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that some of the students have gone as far away as Texas and elsewhere. Are there kids that you're just never going to see again? That the families have left and they're just not coming back?

LIGHTHALL: There are a lot of those kids that are in Oregon and Texas and the Bay Area. And if you're in the service industry, which is really what the Paradise economy is all about - there is no factories or blue-collar manufacturing jobs - your business is gone, and your customer base is gone. So many have left already, and they won't be coming back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Lighthall, I have to ask you - is it hard to be a victim of this but also be someone that everyone is looking to to help guide them at this very difficult time?

LIGHTHALL: It is hard because you want to put on a happy face and kind of courage up, but then there's so much to do, and it's just overwhelming.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you telling your kids? What's going to be your message on the first day back at school?

LIGHTHALL: Well, I sent out a message - just try to let them know that we're all struggling with the same thing. And we're going to get through this because we have to and, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Loren Lighthall, principal of Paradise High School, we wish you all the best. And thank you so much.

LIGHTHALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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