‘Every house is gone and the school is all that’s left,’ says Sonoma schools leader
Teacher Linda Severs lost her school but not her house. Parent Matt Todhunter lost his home but not the school his children attended. And Debra Sanders, who has spent the last six years providing school services for homeless families, suddenly found her own family in that same classification.
Northern California’s Oct. 8 wildfires were among the most destructive in U.S. history, and in Sonoma County, they uprooted an entire school system. As the fires raged, nearly all of the county’s 183 public schools closed, serving 71,000 students. As of Friday, about 75 of those schools remain shuttered, either because of fire or smoke damage or the inability to bring back dislocated teachers, staff and students.
Never before has a California wildfire disrupted a county’s K-12 education so widely, said Steven D. Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.
“What makes this different is the magnitude and size of this fire,” said Herrington, who keeps a map of affected county schools on the wall outside his office. “You can go out there and see schools standing, but there is no community around them. The neighborhoods are gone. It is unbelievable.”
The blazes destroyed or damaged at least three public schools and three private schools, said Herrington, but that is not the biggest obstacle the county confronts. Some 220 teachers and staff members are thought to have lost their homes, along with 329 students. Those numbers will likely double or more as individual school districts complete their assessments, said Jamie Hansen, a spokeswoman for the county education office. Locating these students, and getting them transported to classrooms, remains a logistical hurdle when many roads remain closed.
And then there are the unburned classrooms themselves. With the exception of the northern coast, nearly all of the county’s schools experienced some degree of smoke damage. Nearly 100 have been cleaned and reopened, but many of the remainder – those located in the burn zones – require more extensive remediation to be safe for students, teachers and staff.
Hidden Valley Elementary School is one of those. Paul Drake, a second-grade teacher at Hidden Valley, said the school barely escaped the flames and now needs a professional cleaning. Some parents, he said, are frustrated that the school may not reopen until the end of October or later.
“They want to get back to normal,” Drake said.
Like other fires that night, the Tubbs Fire roared westward, taking many neighborhoods by surprise. It tore through the affluent Fountaingrove development, raced down hillsides, destroyed several schools and scores of homes in the Larkfield area. Then it jumped U.S. Highway 101 and obliterated much of Coffey Park.
While firefighters were unable to save vast subdivisions, they did fend off flames from two public schools in Coffey Park and Larkfield, among others. “They took a stand at the schools and made them safe,” said Herrington.
It was a surreal scene Wednesday at John B. Riebli Elementary in Larkfield. The school was undamaged, with smiling jack-o-lanterns taped to windows and healthy tomatoes growing in the school garden. Some 20 feet away, a PG&E gas crew worked amid the smoky ashes of scores of homes, littered with remnants of scorched chimneys and the skeletons of automobiles.
Further up Mark West Springs Road, Linda Severs and other teachers made their first post-fire visit to the Redwood Adventist Academy, where they had worked up until Oct. 8. The school, once a learning place for 128 students, no longer exists. Nearly everything was incinerated, including all classrooms, the library and the school gym.
Wearing protective gloves, boots and a face mask, Severs walked to her old classroom, and when she saw what remained, she started crying.
“I had 1,000 personal books on cases over there,” said Severs. “Now look what is left of them. Those were my books.”
Stepping outside, Severs marveled that the school’s playing field was still green. She then looked up at the hillside and noticed that the home of the late Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” cartoons, was no more.
“Every day I’d would look up there and feel a connection with him,” said Severs, who has taught at the school for a decade. “Now it is gone. It’s so sad.”
Although known for its wineries and upscale resorts, the public school system of Sonoma County is anything but an enclave for the well-to-do. Some 43 percent of the county’s student population is eligible for free or reduced price lunches, many of them the children of migrant farm laborers or minimum-wage workers.
For the last six years, Debra Sanders has coordinated school services for the county’s foster youths and children of homeless families. Prior to the fire, roughly 900 students in the county met the federal definition for being homeless, which includes those sleeping in campgrounds and vehicles, or doubled up with other people.
Sanders said she never imagined her family might meet that definition, but since Oct. 8, she and her firefighter husband and 11-year-old son technically qualify.
On the night of the fire, Sanders recalls seeing a dim glow on the horizon from a window while the wind howled. As a precaution, she and her husband, Terry, packed up the car and then started checking on their neighbors.
“Shortly after that, the color of the fire coming up the ridge was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” she said. “We said, ‘This is actual fire, coming quickly. In this direction. We have to go.’”
For the next several days, the Sanders family relocated from one house to the next, sometimes departing quickly as the blazes changed direction. “The thing about this fire was that it was ongoing,” she said. “People were sending text messages, “Stop, fire. Please go away!”
Since returning to work Monday, Sanders has spent her time trying to track down displaced students at shelters and setting up bus routes to serve them. While her family’s predicament has received some local attention, she said it isn’t comparable to families she normally serves. “If anything, I hope it raises people’s awareness about people in this situation,” she said.
With many schools still closed, child care is an immediate concern for many working parents. To help displaced families, groups have set up ad hoc day care spaces and established donation centers.
Drake, the second-grade teacher, helped organize one such center for Hidden Valley Elementary School. In less than a week, a retail space in downtown Santa Rosa, donated by the property owner, was filled with shoes, clothing and backpacks, including some transported to Sonoma by Samaritans in Sacramento and the Central Valley.
Matt Todhunter, 38, stopped by the center Wednesday to pick up some items for himself, his wife and their three school-age daughters. He said his family lost their home in the fire, which also damaged Todhunter’s workplace, the campus of Keystone Technologies, which has 1,100 full-time employees. With no office to go to, Todhunter said he has spent most of the week trying to line up contractors to rebuild.
“This is not just about losing a house in a fire,” he said. “This is losing a house in one of the tightest housing markets in the country.”
If all goes well, Sonoma’s school districts hope to reopen all 75 closed schools by Nov. 1, with many as early as next week. Restoring “normalcy” for families is essential for the overall county to recover, said Herrington.
“Some of these children have lost their home,” he said. “The one thing we can provide them is some sense of security.”
Even after all schools reopen, the work will continue, said Herrington, who previously dealt with flood and earthquake disasters while working in El Dorado and Santa Cruz counties as a superintendent.
While Sonoma is eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, the school districts must fully document costs for remediation and other expenses, or risk a FEMA reimbursement request, he said. Longer term, there’s a threat the school districts could lose state funding if the student population drops, as it did in Lake County following the Valley Fire two years ago.
Herrington said he doesn’t “want to even think about” the consequence of a drop in funding, which might force districts to lay off some teachers and staff.
“California needs a statute that says when districts go through a declared national emergency, they should have some form of secure funding source so they can recuperate,” he said. He adds that he tells this to every lawmaker and state official who contacts him.