Children and teachers displaced by a fire that tore through a preschool and two other businesses in Willits struggled for normalcy Monday.
But finding it proved difficult given the reminders of what happened, including the smell of acrid smoke that lingered in the air.
“Fire,” said a girl, pointing at what used to be the home of Imagination Station, but is now a burned and waterlogged mess.
The fact the preschool was able to relocate across the street so quickly is testament to an outpouring from the Willits community, which has suffered much tragedy in the past two weeks, including a possible homicide and the deaths of three people in a vehicle crash.
The early-morning fire last Friday was just the latest jolt. The blaze, allegedly started by a distraught woman who reportedly was being evicted from her home, spread from her apartment and consumed three businesses, including the preschool, a bar and a small market.
Police said the woman barricaded herself in the bar as the fire raged. But three days later, the circumstances of the woman’s arrest remained shrouded in secrecy Monday, with officials refusing to divulge anything about how they managed to bring her out of the inferno alive.
Police Chief Gerardo Gonzalez declined an interview Monday and said he wasn’t releasing more information. City officials declined to discuss details of the investigation and, along with Fire Chief Carl Magann, referred questions about the police action to police officials.
John’s Place bartender Gabe Smith, who came Monday to look at the charred rubble, said firefighters told him the woman had been pointing what looked like a handgun at officers and herself. Smith said he was told officers subdued her with a stun gun and then learned the gun she had may have been plastic.
Suspect Lacee Ross, 31, remained in custody Monday, arrested on suspicion of aggravated arson, attempted homicide and other charges. Ross had lived in the apartment over the bar, was being evicted and had multiple run-ins with police, said several people in town.
The almost hourlong standoff forced firefighters to retreat from their efforts inside the burning building and take up a less-effective strategy from outside, leading to the extensive damage, in the huge building that housed the three businesses, said Little Lake Fire Chief Carl Magann.
Two businesses were destroyed by the fire on East Commercial Street — John’s Place, a long-standing, old-timers downtown bar, and the adjacent Kwik Stop market.
On the bar’s other side was Imagination Station preschool. About 30 percent of it burned, forcing the owner to scramble for a new location for the 105-student preschool and after-school program.
As many as 80 people came Saturday and Sunday to help wash soot-covered toys, gather donations and paint and prep rooms in a former community college building across the street, said preschool owner Saprina Rodriguez and teachers.
“There’s no way in two days this could happen without the community. It took us three months to get the other place together,” said Linda Byrns, preschool teacher and mother of Rodriguez.
“Volunteers came out in droves,” said Willits City Manager Adrienne Moore. “Just an amazing show of support for a very unexpected and unfortunate event.”
“I almost choked up. It’s just amazing what a community can do when they come together like this,” said the fire chief, who stopped in at the new location Monday.