Jim Burfeind’s lips shut tight and his chin slightly quivers. The retired teacher has gentle eyes that well up as he considers a question about why he led an exhaustive search for CTA-Retired members who were forced to evacuate by the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County.
“It needed to be done,” the CTA Chico Retired Chapter President finally says. “I’m confident if I was on the other end of it, somebody would’ve looked out for me.”
From the ashes of the most destructive fire in California history comes the story of Burfeind’s relentless search for 50 fellow members in need. These retired educators were chased from their homes by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Magalia, Butte Valley and Yankee Hill, along with tens of thousands of other Butte County residents last November.
The frantic and sudden dash from danger left a massive list of missing people who had lived in the evacuation area. During the months following the fire, the list slowly shrank until everyone was eventually found, many having relocated to other states before realizing people thought they were “missing.”
Initially, the names of more than 50 Chico Retired members were on the list. Locating these union sisters and brothers proved to be especially difficult because often their only phone numbers were land lines from destroyed homes and emails accessed only on destroyed computers.
“We had to get creative to find them,” says Burfeind, who led a dedicated team of Chico Retired members in locating every single member on the list. “We were tracking people down by talking to others: ‘What about these people? Have you seen them? Do you know if they’re OK?’”
In all, 335 active and retired CTA members were affected by the fire. 273 members were displaced for more than 15 days and 217 lost their home. Of those whose homes were destroyed, 36 also lost their classrooms. And while the fire has been doused and the smoke has cleared, the emotional impacts of the tragedy still impact Butte County every day.
During the difficult and chaotic weeks and months following the fire, the CTA Family came together to support our own. CTA members and chapters donated a total of $139,000, which was distributed to impacted members in addition to the other disaster relief assistance available for CTA members.
“Everyone was so appreciative for the help and concern,” Burfeind says. “Eventually, 20 of our retired members received as much as $3,500 each.”
The fact that this much-needed help is even available for these retired teachers may be a result of Burfeind’s efforts. He helped form the Chico Retired Chapter in 2016 and if it didn’t exist, it’s possible many of the chapter’s 200 members wouldn’t be CTA-Retired members.
“Maybe we just knew there was a reason we needed to be here,” he says. “CTA/NEA-Retired chapters can help like this all over the state. We need to make the family bigger and stronger so we can help each other and stand together for some positive change.”
Burfeind said he was inspired by the story of the teachers in West Virginia, whose bravery and commitment helped spark the #RedForEd movement that has spread nationwide as teachers stand together for each other and public schools. He said CTA’s collective power can make a real difference for our members, students and public education.
“This is the power of union family,” Burfeind says. “We are all CTA!”