Schools tend to be the center of the community in small towns across America. That’s probably never been more the case for Middletown, Calif., than right now.
Last month, when a wildfire destroyed more than half of the town in the mountains north of San Francisco, the schools were miraculously spared. They’ve since reopened and are offering a respite from the sad, day-to-day struggles many students and staff are facing.
To get a sense of the Valley Fire’s devastation, just consider for a minute the Middletown School District: 400 students and at least 40 teachers and staff here lost their homes.
At the high school, there are “Middletown Strong” signs posted on the doors of the modular classrooms. The slogan is also a hashtag on Twitter.
Walking through the outdoor hallways, students swap evacuation stories and ask each other where they’re staying and whether they think their families will end up moving away.
“If you’re out on campus at lunch, they’re teenagers, and they’re resilient, and you know, the school is an escape from reality right now,” Principal Bill Roderick says.
Normally, tragedies faced by the school community involve one child or staff member, at worst, an entire family. But the magnitude of the current suffering is much greater.
“Right now, what I’m finding is the adults and the kids are emotionally exhausted because there are so many people that need help and support,” Roderick says.
Roderick is 41. His Oakleys are resting on his forehead. He’s wearing a black Middletown Mustangs Volleyball shirt; his freshman daughter is on the team. There are stacks of Target and Sports Authority gift cards and other donations for his students on his desk.
“Our community has always been excellent at providing us what we need, but a majority of the businesses that donate to us are ash,” Roderick says.
More than 60 businesses in and around Middletown were burned to the ground.
It’s hard to find someone here who’s not directly affected by the fire, even Roderick. Insurance paperwork is piled high next to all those gift cards on his desk.
“When the fire broke out, we were in Chico at a volleyball tournament, and we could not get home,” Roderick says.
Like so many others, he and his family lost everything. So today, when he’d rather be walking the halls and talking to struggling students and teachers, Roderick is in his office meeting with his insurance adjuster.
Lisa Gerber of California Casualty warns him that it could take up to three more weeks for the company to even just prepare an estimate.
“I said to him, I think the very first day I met him, I want to make sure that we get him settled, because he is trying to settle everybody else,” Gerber says.
That’ll be hard. In addition to the businesses, the Valley Fire destroyed at least 1,300 homes and killed four people.
Against The Odds
Middletown is a rural, mostly working-class community. It was founded more than a hundred years ago during the mining boom and it’s struggled since. Most people commute over the mountain to jobs in Napa.
The town is also mostly surrounded by open land. But four years of drought have been so bad that the Valley Fire easily raced down from the densely forested mountains into neighborhoods like Bill Roderick’s.
Outside the school, you can’t escape the reality that this is a major disaster.
The oak trees lining the streets are pitch black, dead. An apartment complex is burned to the ground and just the twisted frames of some cars remain.
Driving his pickup home, Roderick starts pointing out the flattened lots.
“This is Hidden Valley Lake Auto Body; his daughter goes to school with me right now. This was a cabinet shop right here,” Roderick says.
The Valley Fire will be one of the most expensive blazes in the West this year. Insurance claims alone could reach $1 billion, making it one of the worst in California history. And when you drive around, it’s pretty easy to see why.
“I will almost guarantee you when I pull into my property and I’ve been there a lot since this has happened, I will probably cry,” Roderick says.
He chokes up a little bit pulling in. The first thing you see is the frame of his wife’s 16th birthday present. It’s a ’66 Mustang where the garage used to be.
The rest of the property is ash.
“It smells like fireworks, doesn’t it?” Roderick says.
Deer roam around behind where the two-story house used to be. The manzanita trees around the property are burned to an orange crisp.
“And that’s the strange thing, they say manzanita is fireproof, they say a Manzanita tree won’t burn … I got proof in the back, it burned right through,” Roderick says.
The Valley Fire burned at an intensity and speed never seen around here before. But this kind of wildfire is becoming the new troubling norm for California and the West.
Roderick’s neighborhood had even been awarded a “firewise” designation for all the brush clearing and other prevention work that had been done. It didn’t matter. Firefighters barely had time to evacuate people, let alone park an engine here and try to hose down these homes.
“There’s people that are angry, ‘How come you didn’t save my house?’ They were saving lives, you know what? That’s fine. This, we’ll rebuild. I don’t want to go to a funeral,” Roderick says.
He will be able to rebuild and replace just about everything. It might take two years, but he’s got good insurance. He’s in a better position than a lot of folks here who either didn’t have enough insurance, or rented.
A Sense Of Purpose
All of this is why Roderick thinks it’s so important to get his school back up and running.
Robin Cara, who teaches civics at the high school, says everyone’s just glad to be back. It’s bringing some sense of normalcy to Middletown.
“The kids seem to be doing OK but I think we could answer you better in two weeks when it sinks in,” she says.
Cara and fellow teacher Patty Jimenez are standing outside chatting after class lets out for the day. Jimenez lost her house in the fire, and like the principal, is only just starting with her insurance claim.
“We’ve had quite a year,” Jimenez says.
But behind them, the soccer team is practicing again and the cross-country runners are loading up into vans headed for a meet. They’re even working on getting the homecoming football game and parade rescheduled for next month, the last home game of the year. Cara figures this has all been a welcome diversion for Roderick.
“The job gives you a purpose and he’s focused on the kids and how they’re doing and what he can do to help them and I think that’s a big help for him,” Cara says.
Roderick admits it’s really tough. He looks exhausted, running on adrenaline.
“People look like me at the end of the day because you are just, mentally, you are a punching bag, because you are trying to help all these people get on the right track and get what they need,” he says.
He’s hoping to take a week off soon. He says he hasn’t even had a chance to start processing things yet.