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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.

By Monday, children were using three rooms that had been converted to bright and cheery kid-friendly spots for naps, music and playing. Outside they ran on a newly fenced-in lawn and even rode some of the cleaned-off trikes snagged from the nearby fire scene.

It was the latest tragedy to grip the town.

On Nov. 1, lifelong Willits resident and dance instructor Kayla Chesser, 25, was found dead in her Brooktrails home and her death is being investigated as a homicide. The day before the fire, three people were killed in a three-car crash on Highway 101 just south of Willits.

The fire occurred in the center of the Mendocino County town, one block from the police station and two from the fire station.

Flames coming from the second floor apartment were spotted just before 4 a.m. by an officer.

Volunteer firefighters in the first responding engine were alerted at 3:58 a.m. and were at the fire within three minutes, Magann said. Firefighters had been inside the burning apartment for six minutes when police ordered them out because of a woman brandishing a handgun in the bar below.

In a press release issued Sunday, Willits Sgt. Jacob Donahue said the armed woman was barricaded in a downstairs business below the burning apartment. He said her actions hindered firefighting and endangered lives but that she was eventually subdued and arrested.

Magann had called for mutual aid as the fire grew, eventually getting 35 firefighters from a total of six agencies. The fire was reported under control at 6:40 a.m.

In the end, the huge building couldn’t be saved. The content loss to the three businesses was estimated at $225,000. The damage to the structure still was being tabulated.

The flames also took as much as 200,000 gallons of water from the drought-stricken town.

Magann praised the fire crews for saving as much as they did, including the majority of the preschool, with the limitations they faced.

Monday, the charred remains included the blackened fireplace from John’s Place. With its motto of ‘best little bar in Willits,’ the decades-old saloon and old-timers bar was known for its live rock ’n’ roll shows.

Fires were often going in the wood-burning fireplace when the bar opened at 8 a.m. “It was a place where old timers could come warm their bones and have a cocktail,” said bartender Gabe Smith.

Lost in the fire were hand-painted portraits on the walls of many of the regulars, past and present. In the last year improvements had included two new pool tables, a punching machine and new pinball and video machines, Smith said.

Longtime patron Wayne Cain, who also came by Monday to survey the extensive damage, said he’d really miss the bar’s live music and the juke box with its classic rock ’n’ roll choices.

Smith and Cain said they knew Ross, the upstairs renter, and that bar employees had called police several times following run-ins with the woman.

Recent jail booking records show Friday’s arrest was her third since Oct. 18.

She’d been arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery on that date and about one week later she was back in jail on suspicion of vandalism and petty theft. Both times she was released after posting bail and was awaiting court proceedings at the time of Friday’s fire.

Teachers at the preschool also said they knew Ross and Monday expressed sympathy for her situation. They said they believed she’d recently had her two young children taken away by county child protective services and that she was being evicted.

“We pray for her. We pray for her family. She has two little ones,” said teacher Byrns. “Her sister came by in tears.”

The effort to get the preschool relocated started before dawn Friday when Rodriguez learned of the fire. Friday’s needs were filled by the local Mormon church.

Donations of toys and blankets immediately began coming in and didn’t stop throughout the weekend.

But for all the hard work and effort for the preschool, the fire destroyed many things that can never be replaced, including children’s beloved handmade blankets.

Also lost was the work Rodriguez and her own children had done preparing the preschool, including painting a seascape motif on walls of one room. Those walls are burned almost beyond recognition. “I choked back tears all day but I told myself I have a job to do. Too many parents are counting on me,” said Rodriguez, as she looked at the damage.

Imagination Station moved to the downtown site three years ago. City Manager Moore acknowledged that having a preschool adjacent to a downtown bar was unusual, but she said the location worked.

A large room off the bar used only at night separated the two businesses during the day. “People thought it spruced up the neighborhood, and keep in mind it’s across the street from the police department so there was a sense of security there,” Moore said.

The building, as well as the market and bar, were owned by Nareshbhai and Jivanbhai Patel, both of Ukiah, Magann said. The liquor license lease was owned by Dan Chesser, who also used to own the building.

Ross was booked into the Mendocino County Jail on suspicion of attempted homicide, arson, burglary and brandishing an imitation firearm. Her bail was set at $250,000.

Willits firefighters were aided by Laytonville, Brooktrails, Redwood Valley, Hopland and Ukiah firefighters.

The investigation was continuing and Donahue asked anyone with information to contact police at (707) 459-6122.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @RandiRossmann.

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