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Three weeks after Jordan Espinosa started her first class at Riebli Elementary, the Tubbs fire raced over the ridge and barreled toward the campus, ultimately sparing the K-6 school but wiping out surrounding neighborhoods, forcing district officials to indefinitely close the campus because of toxic ash.

Monday, Espinosa, 8, and her classmates officially returned to the Mark West Springs Road school after being split at two other campuses.

“She’s a little nervous, but for the most part she’s excited,” Jessica Espinosa, 29, said about her third-grader. “She’s excited to be back to normal and get adapted to the school finally.”

Business and government officials, including state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-San Rafael, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore and others welcomed arriving students with balloons, hot chocolate and donuts.

“What an amazing way to start a new year with enthusiasm,” said Gore.

He said children feel the energy in the community, so he and others wanted to help the students kick off the year on a positive note.

Their efforts did not go unnoticed at the school, where more than a quarter of the 460 students lost their homes in the firestorm that erupted Oct. 8.

McGuire said the school is a central part of the Larkfield-Wikiup community, and he and other local and school officials worked closely with the Army Corp of Engineers and private contractors to remove the fire debris from the surrounding homes as quickly as possible to get kids back on campus.

“We were able to accomplish that goal by the end of last week,” McGuire said. “This is a huge milestone bringing normalcy back to so many families who experienced so much trauma.”

The first wave of students also returned Monday to Anova, a school for kids and young adults with autism at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Although the Tubbs fire gutted the 125-student school and an auditorium on the east end of the facility, the rest of the main building survived. Thirty-five adult students will occupy a space that escaped the blaze, while the rest of the students will move into portables on the site, likely by the end of the month.

Schaefer Elementary in Coffey Park will reopen Tuesday, followed two weeks later by fire-scarred Cardinal Newman High and St. Rose Catholic School.

Like Riebli, Schaefer escaped major damage but had to remain closed until workers cleaned the campus and officials could ensure safe air quality after nearby debris removal started. Students were dispersed among the other Piner-Olivet Union School District campuses.

Riebli students couldn’t wait to get back into their own classrooms after being split between San Miguel and Mark West elementary schools.

Haley Skerrett stood in the gym by her sons, Grant and Gage, 7 and 9, respectively, waiting for school to start. Gage was excited his third-grade class would be moving forward with a project raising steelhead from eggs now that they’re back on campus.

“Everything else has been displaced and disrupted,” his mother said about the return. “Coming back here was familiar.”

Fourth-grader Caden Herring appreciated having the officials on hand, saying, “It’s nice for people to know what we’re going through, and that they took the time to come.”

Herring, 10, was excited to get back to his desk after having preschool-size desks and chairs at San Miguel Elementary.

Monday, children raced around the gym while waiting for teachers to take them to their classrooms, hugging and chatting with friends, some they hadn’t seen since the wildfire. There was a goat to pet, and also Carmen, a brown-and-white donkey, before the school bell rang at 8:30 a.m.

“It’s bringing life back to this dead area,” said Caden’s mother, Jessica Herring, 47. “What’s better than children laughing and playing?”

Superintendent Ron Calloway said the district also brought in therapy dogs to provide comfort as students settle into their regular school routine.

He was thrilled to have the students back.

“The laughter on the campus is the best sound as an educator we can hear,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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