Teachers fleeing fires worry about their homes and their mental health

Fires have forced evacuations of more than 40 staff members in the district


Courtesy of Steven Turner

Math and AP Computer Science teacher Steven Turner with his newborn daughter. Turner and his family evacuated their Morgan Hill home and are staying at a friend’s house in Campbell.

Staff reporter, with reporting by Ziv Galpaz and Jazzy Nguyen

Social science teacher Brett Johanson, his wife and two dogs last week fled the massive CZU Lightning Complex fires that are threatening his Ben Lomond home in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Amid the stress of teaching remotely and the uncertainty of losing his home, he’s trying to be upbeat. He’s staying at his sister’s house in San Jose and said he is grateful for offers of help that have been coming in.

“It’s challenging when you’re displaced,” he said. “We’re super lucky because we have family in the area that are extremely generous and welcoming. It makes it easier. But you’re still living in somebody else’s home.”

Johanson is among a group of teachers, including math and AP Computer Science teacher Steven Turner and science teacher Kevin Kalman, who have left their homes to seek shelter from the smoke and fire, which have so far scorched more than 1.4 million acres in the past week and a half. According to Cal Fire, more than 625 fires are active in California as of Monday.  More than 40 teachers and staff in the district have relocated, with some losing their homes. The district has set up a GoFundMe for the staff who have been affected by the fires (the link is in our bio). Combined with dry, hot weather and strong winds, the smoke has forced the evacuation of more than 625,000 residents.

The current disaster was brought on by a series of lightning storms that struck the Bay Area early Aug. 16. As the fires began to spread, the smoke became overwhelming. That was when Johanson knew it was time to leave his home of nine years.

“It was like your head was in a chimney,” he said. “At that point, we knew the fires were getting close.”

Turner, who with his wife and newborn, made their decision to evacuate their Morgan Hill home after receiving notification that they were in an evacuation warning notice Thursday afternoon. Rather than waiting for the fire danger to get closer, they decided to pack their bags.

“Evacuating early in the morning is not fun,” he said.

Currently staying with a friend in Campbell, Turner is taking the latest developments in stride. He had prepared for the moment since early July, when another fire had threatened his home. 

Science teacher Kevin Kalman with his wife Barbara and son Wesley. Kalman was also displaced from his home in Morgan Hill (he and Turner live near each other). (Courtesy of Kevin Kalman)

Science teacher Kevin Kalman, who lives minutes away from Turner, made a similar decision to leave Thursday afternoon. Kalman and his wife Barbara also have a young child, who is almost three years old.

“We’ve heard that you can get a knock on the door in the middle of the night and tell you that you’ve only got a minute to leave,” he said. 

For Turner, finding friends and family members to accommodate their nearly three-month-old was tricky, especially with social distancing protocols in place. 

“It came down to who has a separate room so that we don’t keep them up all night with a crying baby,” he said.

Kalman and his family are staying at his in-laws a few minutes from Branham. Aside from the present stress and fear of losing their new home, the surreal situation is similar to that of a student returning to stay with their parents. Even with the familiar surroundings, it’s still a stressful time for his family, as the triple threats of a pandemic, online learning and wildfires have taken a mental and physical toll.

“It’s not a vacation where you’re going somewhere and your routines changed,” he said. “You’re still getting your work done, you’re still social distancing, and can’t go outside and get away or go anywhere else.”