Sonoma County teachers, fire victims themselves, comfort their students

Teacher Nancy Blair, left, who lost her Mark West Estates home in the Tubbs Fire, talks to Mary Caughey, business manager at Rincon Valley Middle School, who lost her Kenwood home in the fire, at Rincon Valley Middle School in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Nancy Blair’s students squealed and giggled as she read out loud Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” She urged her Rincon Valley Middle School English class to think about descriptive narratives before diving into a writing assignment.

Normalcy appeared to be returning to the 900-student campus after the Tubbs fire three weeks ago destroyed the homes of 113 students and forced hundreds more to evacuate.

“This is so unprecedented that everyone is affected by the tragedy all at the same time,” said Blair, 50, who lost her Mark West Estates home in the fire and is living in a borrowed RV with her husband and their 10-year-old twins.

She’s among the 150 teachers countywide who lost their homes in the fires that erupted Oct. 8. Many already have returned to their schools, hoping to provide some routine for their students and help them cope with the trauma while dealing with their own losses.

“In some ways, it might help my students feel better because I’m going through it, too,” Blair said.

Like her students, Blair said she’s also finding comfort in being back at school, where she’s taught English for the past 24 years. She said the students give her energy, while faculty and staff provide much-needed support as she wrestles with life’s new challenges. They include hunting for a rental home and ensuring her twins have a place to go after school now that they live far from their Mark West Union school district.

“It’s tiring... I’m forgetting names. It’s like having baby brain,” she said, jokingly. But the kids don’t seem to mind.

“They’ve been awesome,” said Blair, who also teaches at Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter, located on the Rincon Valley Middle School campus. “They’re handing me gift cards. The parents are trying to help me find places to live.”

Lesley Van Dordrecht, a second-grade teacher at Mark West Elementary, returned to school Monday, although she initially worried about whether she could handle work after losing her home in Coffey Park.

“I’m still pretty disoriented, and I get tired very fast,” said Van Dordrecht, 62, who’s taught at the school for 24 years. “(But) it has been good for me being around so much love. The young children give you so much hope. They’re always looking forward, not looking back.”

Van Dordrecht and her husband, a musician, escaped minutes before the Tubbs fire engulfed their Hennessy Place home, where they had lived for 29 years. They managed to grab her husband’s favorite guitar and their car keys but not much else.

“Everything was in there — all my kids’ memories. All my husband’s instruments,” Van Dordrecht said.

They managed to secure an apartment a few days after the fire, but it remains empty except for a blow-up mattress and a television a friend gave them to watch the World Series, said Van Dordrecht.

On the first day back at school, she asked her students to write about the fire and its impact on their families. She also talked to them about how the fire affected her family.

“I warned them ‘I might start crying, but it’s all OK. Just come up and give me a hug,’ ” she said.

While it’s hard for her, Van Dordrecht keeps in mind it’s twice as hard for the children and teachers from John B. Riebli Elementary School, who had to move to her campus. Although Riebli escaped damaged from the blaze, the school remains closed until toxic materials in adjacent neighborhoods are cleared, Mark West Union School District superintendent Ron Calloway said.

He said 216 students from 192 families lost homes in the fire, which also destroyed the homes of 16 employees, including eight teachers. He said teachers and staff are working hard to bring normalcy to the students.

“They have to be brave and supportive of children,” he said. “The spirit of the staff and their dedication and perseverance to our children is forefront at every moment.”

Districts throughout the county have seen an outpouring of support for both students and teachers. The Windsor school district received gift cards for the 19 employees who lost their homes. While their schools were spared, Superintendent Brandon Krueger said many of his staff members were forced to evacuate their neighborhoods in Coffey Park, Larkfield-Mark West and Fountaingrove.

His district, like others throughout the county, is providing employees impacted by the fire additional personal leave days. “Some took a few days immediately to just get things together,” he said.

Three other educators in her neighborhood lost their homes in the fire, Blair said. At Rincon Valley Middle, which is part of Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest school district, she said another teacher and an office staff member also lost their home.

The fires destroyed the homes of 32 teachers districtwide, said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa teacher’s union, which has handed out $50,000 in grants to educators who lost homes or were forced to evacuate. He said the California Teachers Association also provided $100,000 in grants.

Maria Carrillo High School teacher Trish Terrell helped many teachers turn in the grant applications.

“(It) was a huge pain: fill out form online, print it, sign it, fax or mail — many things a displaced and distraught person could not handle,” said Terrell, who also collected backpacks and school supplies for more than 900 children, then went on to help other teachers fill out the same forms.

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