High school principal burned out of Paradise gets fresh start in Hughson

Loren Lighthall has settled into the principal’s job at Hughson High School, nearly nine months after the Camp Fire leveled his house.

He had been principal at Paradise High School since 2017, but he could not find a replacement home for his large family amid the disaster.

“You had 14,000 families looking for housing that doesn’t exist,” he said at his new campus Wednesday. “... To be able to find a home there became almost impossible.”

So Loren and Rachel Lighthall moved their seven children, ages 4 to 21, to a town 155 miles to the south. They are renting a house on an almond farm within the Hughson Unified School District.

The new principal was on hand Wednesday for Senior Roundup, when students picked up their schedules and textbooks. The new school year starts Aug. 13.

Lighthall, 46, said the move has helped him deal with the emotional stress of seeing a town go up in flame last November 8.

“It was a hellish day, to think about all the loss and devastation,” he said. The fire killed 85 people and spread across about 153,000 acres. About 90 percent of Paradise-area students lost their homes.

The Lighthalls lived with another family for a few weeks after the fire, then found an apartment in Chico. It helped that some of the kids were away for college or church mission work.

Paradise High School survived the flames, but a lack of water and power forced a move to temporary quarters in Chico. First it was at a former LensCrafters store in a mall, then at a vacant office building near the airport.

SoCal experience

Lighthall was born in Syracuse, New York, and came west to attend Brigham Young University in Utah. He taught math for seven years at Paramount High School, near Los Angeles, then was an assistant principal at Santa Ana High School for a decade.

The move north came after he and Rachel decided that they wanted to raise their family in a place other than the L.A. area. They sought less crime, more affordable housing, small schools and a nice climate. They settled on Paradise, a forested spot in the northern Sierra Nevada.

Despite a stay of just two years, the family felt rooted and hated the idea of moving again.

“Loren was an outsider who took about one week to become an insider,” Superintendent Michelle John of the Paradise Unified School District told the San Francisco Chronicle. That story was one of several in Northern California media about the principal’s departure.

The Hughson district board voted in April to hire Lighthall, effective July 1. He succeeded Debra Davis, who retired after more than three decades in the district as a teacher, coach and administrator.

Hughson Superintendent Brenda Smith said by phone Thursday that she liked that Lighthall had taught math, a district emphasis this year.

“I was very impressed with his focus on students and being actively involved in his community and instilling pride in Paradise,” she said.

A busy family

Rachel Lighthall is a full-time mom. Eldest son Chris, 21, is studying at BYU. Lone daughter Rebekah, 20, is in Mozambique on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Their brother Lance, 17, is about to start at BYU.

That will leave four kids at home, spread across four district campuses: Joseph, 14, will be at Hughson High with his dad. Ben, 13, will attend Ross Middle School. Lincoln, 9, is headed for Fox Road Elementary School, which has just fourth and fifth grades. Peter, 4, will go to Hughson Elementary School, which is pre-K to third grade.

Loren Lighthall said he sometimes flashes back to the fire when he sees smoke or other reminders, but he is working to come to terms with the ordeal.

The move south meant repeating the search that he and Rachel undertook in 2017. They found Hughson to be a charming small town that also was close to bigger-city services.

“I had it circled pretty early on,” he said. “... It’s really a lot like Paradise.”

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John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.