California parents struggle as Covid and fires collide

With much of northern California still under lockdown and wildfires raging across the state, Corinne

With much of northern California still under lockdown and wildfires raging across the state, Corinne Perham’s nine-year-old daughter recently asked: can coronavirus and fire make people extinct?

Covid-19 changed the lives of Perham’s family in ways large and small – her husband, an emergency room doctor, started showering before he came home from work, and her nine- and 10-year-old daughters were distance learning at their Chico home. Then a deadly wildfire burning nearby rained ash on the region and created hazardous air that meant no one could go outside for days. Perham’s kids started asking “when will the fires be over?” along with “when will corona be over?”

Related: ‘We need to show children we can survive’: how to parent through a pandemic

“The children of Chico are so resilient,” Perham, 44, told the Guardian told this week, adding that her daughters were familiar with the sight of smoke because of all the fires in recent years. “But I keep having to tell my children this isn’t a normal childhood.”

The wildfires raging across California have been one more hurdle to navigate for families already pushed to their limit by Covid-19. This year’s fires have burned more than 3m acres, a record for California, killed at least 26 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. Millions have been affected as toxic smoke from the blazes made the air in large swaths of the state unhealthy to breathe. Outdoor activities, which had become an important escape for people as Covid-19 shut down much of the state and prevented most gatherings and in-person learning, became impossible.

“School is at home and then you can’t go outside,” said Izabella Borsodi, whose two young daughters are both distance learning.

School is at home and then you can’t go outside

Izabella Borsodi

Blanca Segura, 28, hasn’t been able to return to work as a fitness instructor since two of her three children started distance learning. Instead, she spends the mornings in a converted classroom in their West Sacramento home, listening to her five-year-old and eight-year-old on Zoom to ensure they’re on-task and that she can help them if they need it.

With her husband working long hours in wildfire zones for the utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and Covid-19 preventing her from meeting with the other moms in her fitness class who usually provide support, things have been difficult. “It’s just me by myself,” she said. “I don’t even know what normal is any more.”

She recalled a moment when her husband called to tell her he was OK – a PG&E worker had died while helping firefighters and he wanted to ensure Segura didn’t see the news and think it was him – and her kids were running around restless because, after days spent in front of their computer screens, they couldn’t run outside to play in their treehouse or swim.

“It was rough,” she said. “I definitely let go of screen-time expectations. It was survival mode.”

With kids adjusting to spending their days on the computer, and parents scrambling to deal with technology glitches and slow internet, patience is already wearing thin, said Rachelle Sparman, a mother of two. Being stuck inside with fires burning nearby added a new dose of stress, she said.

“They’re definitely acting out,” Sparman said of her sons. “Even with little things that wouldn’t normally upset them. It’s hard to be stuck inside the house.”

The disasters and chaotic state of the world are a lot for children to process, said Lisa Perry, a high school English teacher and mother of two.

“My youngest is confused seeing the craziness in the world,” said Perry, who is also pregnant. “You can tell she’s scared. And I see it in my students too … Even just seeing them on camera, you can see how stressed they are.”

Related: Covid-19 proves childcare in the US is broken – can it be fixed?

In Butte county, near the North Complex fire, which has burned almost 290,000 acres and killed at least 15, the smoke has been a particularly dire issue with air quality ranking among the worst in the world.

<span class="element-image__caption">Cody Carter battles the North Complex fire in Plumas national forest, California.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Noah Berger/AP</span>
Cody Carter battles the North Complex fire in Plumas national forest, California. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

“It has been harder on the kids because they know they can’t go outside,” Serena Marie Hary, 44, said. Hary’s sons have been distance learning in Chico for months, a process that’s been challenging for her nine-year-old son, Chance. The third-grader recently became so upset when the computer froze and he couldn’t follow along with his class that he started to cry.

“I don’t want them to be sad,” she said. “I don’t want education to be overwhelming. Going to school shouldn’t be overwhelming.”

We’re upset about our friends but we try our best to keep it away from the kids. I cry a lot

Serena Marie Hary

Hary works as a caretaker for a neighbor and her son comes over throughout the day, frustrated about the internet or eager to play video games. She worries about the amount of time her children are spending online, particularly as the smoke forces them to stay indoors. Her 15-year-old hasn’t been able to go on walks to decompress and Chance recently returned from a playdate covered in ash after spending time outside. The family knows that with the smoke comes loss – their own friends have been affected by the nearby fires.

“We’re upset about all of our friends who are going through so much. We try our best to keep it away from the kids,” she said. “I cry a lot.”

April Browne’s husband and son are both considered medically vulnerable to Covid because of health conditions, so the family has spent the last six months completely isolated at their Chico home.

Related: What a 200-year-old experiment can teach anxious parents about home schooling | Sarah Stein Lubrano

But smoke from the nearby fire became so bad it seeped indoors, requiring Browne to monitor the breathing of her son, who has asthma. At the same time, the family still had to work and attend school online, so rather than stay and breathe the air that was considered hazardous, the family decided to stay with relatives in Arizona.

“We drove for 13 hours,” she said. “There were rest stops and food we had to buy – that had to happen. That was really scary, but I honestly believe if we hadn’t [gone], one of them would have ended up in the ER.”

In Arizona, the Browne family found clear blue skies. For the first time in days, her children could run around and play. Her son could breathe.

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