Hughson High School’s new principal Loren Lighthall is all about the Huskies. It’s rare to see him wearing anything other than black and gold — right down to the Crocs of each color he wears on his feet — and the friendly administrator is a common sight at every school event.
Students pop their heads into his office from time to time in search of one of the countless snacks he has hidden away, or perhaps looking for a friendly face they can vent to about homework. The principal even makes it a point to pose for a picture with the school’s Student of the Week every chance he gets, then takes to Facebook to brag about his talented pupils.
Looking around the campus, it’s safe to say Lighthall fits right in since taking the helm of HHS at the start of the school year. It would be nearly impossible to tell that one year ago, his life was turned completely upside down by the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history: The Camp Fire.
“Hughson is a lot like Paradise. It’s a tightknit, small community…It’s been very welcoming and the people have been fantastic,” Lighthall said.
Lighthall served as Paradise High School’s principal from 2017 to 2019 and oversaw the school during some of its darkest days. The Camp Fire nearly wiped the town of Paradise off the map on Nov. 8, 2018, destroying nearly 19,000 structures and taking 85 civilian lives. Lighthall lost his home in the fire, as did many of his students, neighbors and friends — a travesty that he and others who lived through it are still dealing with to this day, he said.
“It’s really hard for me. You’re just not used to dealing with things of that magnitude or having to process trauma like that when you have a pretty good life…It’s just difficult to deal with all that,” Lighthall said.
Recent features on the fire by Netflix and ESPN were impossible for him to watch, he added.
“It’s not something I’m interested in reliving. You probably have to process and deal with it, which I’m not doing.”
With the anniversary of the catastrophic fire approaching, the details of that day still ring clear in Lighthall’s mind. He noticed a smoke plume in the distance when he got to school on the morning of Nov. 8, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Fires happened all the time in that area; all the school needed to do was monitor its progress.
Then, just as students were beginning to arrive on campus, the assistant principal brought a massive chunk of smoking bark into the office that had fallen from the sky. This caught Lighthall’s attention, and the decision was made to cancel school for the day and evacuate the campus just 10 minutes before classes began.
Lighthall oversaw the evacuation, ensuring every student who had already arrived at school was picked up safely and those who were just pulling up had turned back around.
“By then, it was really obvious that (the fire) was coming and something was wrong,” he said. “It was super black, almost like it was nighttime out.”
A majority of the town, including Lighthall, his wife and seven children, evacuated to the Chico fairgrounds, unsure of what they would return to. There was traffic as the entire town attempted to evacuate, and many were caught in the fire with no place left to go.
“Thankfully we got out…It was obviously devastating to go through. People are like, ‘Well, did you stay with a friend?’ and I’m like, ‘No, all of my friends’ houses burned down,’” Lighthall said. “You lose your church, your work, your school, your home, your neighbors. It’s a lot to deal with.
“(Evacuating) was very traumatizing because you’re thinking about what it would be like to die…by fire while you’re sitting there and you can’t move.”
After the fire there was very little left of the Paradise community. While the high school still stood, many of its students, faculty and staff had lost their homes and belongings, Lighthall included. In the aftermath of the devastation it was difficult for anyone to find a new home in the community, let alone a house that would be big enough for a family of nine. So, Lighthall was forced to leave the community with which he had been through so much.
“It was a difficult decision to leave Paradise because you’re kind of like an anchor family. If the principal leaves, or a certain pastor, or the police chief or the city manager, then you know the other people are thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe we should leave.’ It kind of plants the seed for people, so I was really worried about that…but they just expressed gratitude and gratefulness. You have a shared experience together and it bonds you together. There was lot of understanding,” Lighthall said.
By January 2019, the total damage of the Camp Fire was estimated at $16.5 billion. That same month, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (the utility company whose faulty power line was responsible for the fire) filed for bankruptcy, and has implemented blackouts throughout the state this year when fire conditions arise.
Lighthall says he harbors no ill will toward PG&E for their role in the deadly inferno, though he believes there has to be a better way to deal with the statewide issue.
“There’s certainly fault and they’ve admitted that. I think it’s kind of time to move past it because if you focus on that, it will drive you crazy,” he said. “(The blackouts) seem kind of extreme, but I wish they’d have shut it off the day that we had the Camp Fire, too, so it’s kind of a catch-22.”
Lighthall still keeps in touch with many of the people he knew in Paradise, he said, but has turned over a new leaf in the small farming community of Hughson. The high school’s collaboration with other city entities has impressed him since he began his new job in July, he said, as have the determined attitudes of his new students. He even gets to work alongside his son, who’s a freshman at the school.
“Working with the kids is I think why any of us do this…the kids here are really exceptional, come from good families and make good decisions. They’re still teenagers, but still great kids,” Lighthall said with a laugh. “We’ll always have a part of (Paradise) with us and we love it, but we’re grateful to be in Hughson.”