When Happy Camp Elementary School in rural Northern California began teaching two weeks ago, it was one of the few in California to reopen classrooms to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abigail Yeager had initially worried whether it would be safe to send her 6 and 8 year old sons, and whether wearing masks would “freak them out”.
These fears were quickly dispelled. Her sons and other students were thrilled to be back in school and it seemed like a big win at Happy Camp, a town in Siskiyou County of 800 people on the Klamath River.
But this week the Slater fire ravaged Happy Camp, destroyed 150 homes and killed two people. Half of the primary school staff have lost their homes, and the administrators estimate that half of the 109 students are now homeless.
"It went so well," said Yeager, a member of the board of trustees for the Happy Camp Union elementary school district. "It has done so much for our children and it has been torn away again. I have tried to process all of the loss and there is another loss – normal for the children. It's just chaos."
Yeager sees herself happy. She hasn't lost her home. But Happy Camp remains evacuated as the utterly uncontrolled fire rages on and casualties in the isolated, impoverished city 13 miles south of the Oregon border.
One of the things that residents fear most is that their tragedy will be overlooked when the west coast is besieged by some of the greatest forest fires in modern history.
"We need help. We need to rebuild our community. We are strong, but we are definitely not Orange County or the Bay Area," said Judy Hahn, president of the elementary school, who spent several nights in her car with her dog this week Her husband's urn was asleep because she was home under evacuation orders.
"We're small. But I don't want to be swallowed up and forgotten."
The Slater fire, which began Monday night in the Klamath National Forest, had burned 136,314 acres without containment by Friday night.
The wind-powered fire exploded in size on Wednesday night, growing from 30,000 acres to more than 120,000 acres and crossing the border into Oregon, a state already grappling with its own massive forest fires and evacuating half a million people.
On Friday, the Slater Fire chewed through three national forests: the Klamath, the Six Rivers, and the Rogue River-Siskiyou.
Two bodies were recovered at Happy Camp this week, Lt. Jeremiah LaRue, a spokesman for the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office. You haven't been identified. According to LaRue, authorities tried to find 10 people whose whereabouts were unknown.
The vast, heavily forested region is sparsely populated, with steep terrain and few roads, said Duane Lyon, a spokesman for the multi-agent team fighting the fire. That made it difficult to get fire service personnel and equipment.
"There is fierce competition for resources across the United States," said Lyon. With the number of fires burning at the same time, "we find it difficult to get the resources we want."
As of Friday, only 240 firefighters had battled the Slater fire, which had a footprint more than twice that of Sacramento.
The same crews are also fighting the 4,488-acre Devil Fire, which was discovered on Wednesday on nearby Upper Devil & # 39; s Peak in the Klamath National Forest and which is also completely uncontrolled. Together, the fires threaten around 850 houses.
The assistance that would have been provided in 24 hours in a normal year now takes several days, LaRue said.
"The whole state is on fire," he said. "Personnel, equipment, planes – it's limited. Everyone is really stretched thin."
At Happy Camp, the loss was staggering.
Located on a narrow section of State Route 96 called the Bigfoot Scenic Byway, the western town in Siskiyou County features an 18-foot statue of Sasquatch made from recycled metal. The old logging town, whose population has declined dramatically in recent years, is 55% whites and 24% Native Americans.
The fire penetrated Happy Camp along Indian Creek Road this week and destroyed an estimated 150 homes in a town with just 559 units, according to the census. Around 30% of the population live below the poverty line – more than twice the state and national average.
The administrators said the city was suffering from a housing shortage before the fire. The elementary school is struggling to recruit new staff and substitute teachers, and when they come the school authorities have a hard time finding a place to live for them, Yeager said.
Derek Cooper, 53, began serving as the superintendent and principal of the elementary school on July 1. He fell in love with Happy Camp, where he could hunt and fish and try to make a meaningful difference in a tiny school.
He had been living in an RV when he was trying to find a home and had driven seven hours to his and his wife's home in Placer County on the weekends. He's not sure if the trailer burned.
On Tuesday, when the fire closed in town, Cooper graduated from school after all of the children were picked up. He believes "we saved lives because the students were at school and not home alone."
"I am positive that we made the right choice to have children here and bring them back to school."
Hahn, the president of the elementary school board, said the tiny school district desperately needs its students, now spread across three states during the evacuation, to come back as funding depends on average daily attendance.
Hahn hasn't lost her home, but she couldn't come back to it this week after the evacuation order was issued. She refused to leave town and slept for several days in her Mercury Milan, which was parked near the high school baseball field.
"I am so happy – blessed – to still have my home," she said. “Houses right next to me burned down. Total devastation. "
Hahn's son lost his home and slept in the bed of his pickup truck at the stadium with his son, who is a firefighter. Hahn's daughter also lost her home, in which a wood workshop was filled with tools from Hahn's deceased husband.
Hahn lost three cats, she said in a cracking voice. When she was evacuated, she grabbed her hunting license, favorite drill, family photos and some clothes.
Hahn grew up in Happy Camp and met her future husband in sixth grade. They married at the age of 19, were “totally in love” and were married for 42 years before he died in a tree-cutting accident a few years ago.
She felt a little lost, she said so as not to have him with her, and she spoke through the tragedy.
In decades of marriage, she said, they had a good time making fun of each other. She said her husband's urn was carefully wrapped in towels and a basket in the back of the car she slept in. His ashes are "safe and secure".
"It obviously burned once," she said with a chuckle. "I don't want it to burn again."
Then she added, “You have to laugh. I can think of many reasons to cry. "