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To Hell and Back: A Paradise Educator Reckons with the Fire

December 21, 2018
by Glen Martin

That day started out as any other for Ambrosia Krinsky. She woke up in her Chico home, dropped her four-year-old off at day-care, then drove up The Skyway, the road that connects Chico to the smaller city of Paradise. Even before she got into town, she knew something was amiss: The sky was turning red. Paradise was burning. She sped to the town’s high school, where she teaches biology and English.

“I was a little late getting my daughter off,” said Krinsky, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2013 with a double major in media studies and society and environment. “By the time I got to school it was 8:45, and the kids had already been dismissed because of the fire. I found the principal and asked if I could be released, and by the time I got back on The Skyway the ash was raining down in chunks as big as dinner plates. The air was being sucked from the left side of the road to the right side, drawn to the fire and taking a lot of debris with it. I’d never seen anything like that, and I was scared. I thought I’d be trapped.”

Photo by Glen Martin

Krinsky had been teaching at Paradise for three years and had obtained tenure shortly before the Camp Fire ignited. But she was no newcomer—or “flatlander” as people in Northern California’s mountainous regions sometimes label outsiders. She was raised there and graduated from the town’s high school. She returned because she felt she had important work to do.

“It was a hard place to grow up,” she says. “It’s a high-poverty community. There are drug and family problems. You ever read Winter’s Bone? It was like that—but in California, not the Ozarks. Young people tend to stay there, even if they don’t have much in the way of prospects. After I graduated from Berkeley, I felt compelled to go back. I wanted to show kids that there were options outside of Paradise, that you can leave town and build a life for yourself. I love my kids, and I tell them that. But I also tell them that I’m their mentor and adviser, not their friend. I make sure they understand the difference. I’m there to help them better their lives.”

Krinsky had faced considerable challenges of her own in identifying life options. Like many people in town, her parents struggled to make ends meet; their home was foreclosed in 2014. But Krinsky enrolled in a local community college and excelled.

“I worked hard, I got good grades, and I tried to make an impact locally through clubs and community service,” she says. “I helped a friend make a movie to get into film school, I recorded a music album, and I put all that into my Berkeley application. And I got in. I have a lot of student debt, but I’m the first university graduate in my family. That’s my jam, and I use it when I’m working with hard-to-reach kids. If I can do it they can do it.”

Photo by Glen Martin

Krinsky is close to her kids, and she was consumed with worry for them even as she fled for her life. But while Paradise’s high school survived the fire, the school district office did not—and the district’s server was destroyed. All the contact information on the kids—phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts—went up in smoke.

Within the first few days of the fire, reports confirmed 29 dead with more than 200 people still missing.

“I was extremely upset,” Krinsky says. “I didn’t know if they were all safe—I didn’t know if I should grieve or not.”

But within the first day Krinsky got an email from one of her pupils, and she was able to get her phone number out on Snapchat. She eventually touched based with all her students. They were safe, but they were not secure.

“Most of these kids didn’t have much before the fire,” Krinsky says, “so on the one hand, losing everything may not have been as traumatic as it would be for wealthier kids used to a lot of material possessions. But they’re also very much in need. A lot of them are living in tents at evacuation centers, or in cars. So we knew right away that we had to do something.”

Photo courtesy of Ambrosia Krinsky

Krinsky’s friend and colleague, Marta Shaffer, launched a GoFundMe campaign to help Paradise’s students and quickly raised $6,000. The two women bought gift cards at supermarkets and megastores and handed them out to the students.

“We were taking kids out on Target runs—we helped out dozens in the first two weeks alone,” says Krinsky. “What really got me was that a lot of them didn’t even want things for themselves. They’d say something like, ‘It’d be great if you got me a pair of shoes, but my family really needs food, so just give me a grocery card.’”

Krinsky is teaching again. Paradise students now attend a makeshift “school” established in a vacant space near the food court in the Chico Mall. Class time is supplemented with online instruction. Other schools have donated 2,000 used Chromebooks to the district, so each student has a laptop.

“Every teacher has office hours, and we email our schedules to the students so they always know how to reach us directly,” says Krinsky. “I’m deliberately keeping the coursework light for this semester. If they log on and attempt the work, I’m satisfied. I’m not going to come down too hard on kids who are literally living in cars and 4x4s.”

Despite the more relaxed regimen, her students haven’t demonstrated any real inclination to scamp their work, Krinsky says. With their homes burned and their immediate future uncertain, school has become an anchor—a refuge, even.

“I have one guy who really didn’t do much work all year, and now he’s pretty diligent,” says Krinsky. “And I’m going to pass him.”

Photo courtesy of Ambrosia Krinsky

It remains unclear to what degree Paradise will rebuild. At this point, there’s effectively no town—just gutted ruins—and many families have left the area. For a lot of kids, their situations were tough before the fire, says Krinsky. Now they’re intolerable. For many, there may be no returning.

“I have students who’ve moved to Texas, Idaho and Oregon,” she says. “Life was already so hard for them. Four of my kids had lost their mothers in the last year, and now their homes are gone.”

Krinsky’s prospects are uncertain as well. At a recent staff meeting, she says, the principal of her school announced that “those of us on the lower end of the salary schedule should start looking for new jobs and that he’s willing to write us letters of recommendation. I have $50,000 in student loan debt, and I’m nervous what this will mean for the financial future of my family.”

Krinsky says she’s looking at teaching in Oroville, a town just south of Paradise.

“It has demographics similar to Paradise’s, and there are a lot of kids who need help and support.”

Driving through Paradise after the fire, Krinsky struggled to maintain her equilibrium. What bothered her most were the scores of flattened trailers, standard housing for many of the town’s residents—including her students.

“It just filled me with this deep sense of loss,” she says. “I felt a little better when I visited the home I grew up in, the one that had been foreclosed in 2014. It survived the fire. There’s a big sugar pine on the property, and it was my special tree when I was a little girl—it was my giving tree. The new owner let me visit it, and I saw that it had been scorched. It looks like it could survive, but it’ll be wait-and-see. And that’s pretty much where I’m at now. I’m just doing what has to be done every day, and then I go back home and get lots of snuggles from my four-year-old and two dogs.”

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