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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Screams, squeals and booming laughter filled the sanctuary at the Santa Rosa Seventh-day Adventist Church as students kicked and chased around a soccer ball. Across the hall in the chapel, others played tag and jumped rope.

Nearly 90 Redwood Adventist Academy primary and middle school students moved into the church just south of downtown Santa Rosa after the October wildfires destroyed their Mark West Springs Road campus. With no slides, monkey bars or ball fields at the church site, school officials needed ways for students to burn off extra energy.

“We play tag, indoor soccer or capture the flag — whatever doesn’t break windows,” said Jessie Michel, who teaches seventh and eighth grade. “We make the best of it.”

Michel said the school also received some portable basketball hoops a month after the fire for the older students to play in the parking lot. On a recent rainy afternoon, though, her students hunkered down in the church’s small game room, chatting loudly as they waited for their turn on the piano and foosball table.

While several schools celebrated their reopening this month after completing cleanups and fire debris removals, Redwood Adventist students will have to wait months to return to their K-12 campus.

Principal Angie Weems said crews started removing the charred remains last week, but the cleanup likely won’t be completed until the end of February. None of the buildings on the 23-acre campus survived the fire, she said.

“Our goal is to get portables for next school year out there,” Weems said.

Seventh-grader Kaighlei Clendennin, 12, misses the school’s grassy fields and farm, where she and classmates raised corn, eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, melons and peppers. They’d just harvested the first of the winter squash when the Tubbs fire barreled down the ridge, destroying the farm and all the school buildings.

“Everything was dead,” said Clendennin, who visited the farm and campus two weeks ago for a farewell ceremony. “There was no grass left. Just black.”

Weems said the lack of outdoor space at the church has been an adjustment for her students, who are “learning to be city kids.” She, however, voiced hope the farm program could be restarted this spring and children bused there at least once a week for fresh air and exercise. Primary students went to the fields at least once a week, while the 35 high schoolers, who temporarily moved to Rio Lindo Adventist Academy east of Healdsburg, spent more time out there as part of their agriculture class.

“If we can get their kids out there this year, it’s going to be huge,” Weems said. “It’s great for education. It’s great therapy.”

She and her staff were able to resume classes in the church’s school area a week after the wildfires broke out Oct. 8, helping restore a sense of normalcy for families, including five who lost homes. Roots run deep at the school, where alumni send their children and grandchildren.

It’s not the first fire to devastate the school. Founded 87 years ago, a fire destroyed the original school house on Wright Road in southwest Santa Rosa after a boiler exploded in the early 1940s, Weems said. The school was rebuilt, and families continued to send their kids there until 1971, when the campus was built in Mark West, she said.

“It’s been pretty emotional,” Weems said about the latest fire. “There’s people in the community that helped build that campus, (putting in) a lot of sweat equity.”

Pacific Union College set up a fundraiser for Redwood Adventist on the site, purecharity.com. So far, it’s raised more than $56,000.

The school was insured, but officials said donations will help replace textbooks, laptops and other school supplies.

They’re already received an outpouring of support. Books, children’s tables and chairs in the temporary classrooms were all donated, said Glenda Purdy, the school’s registrar and music, consumer arts and computer applications teacher.

Second-grader Jeremy Joseph, 7, was excited about the computer near his teacher’s desk. “We just got it,” he said.

While he still misses his school’s playground and farm, Joseph said there’s plenty of donated toys to keep him and his classmates busy at recess, including the large doll house, play kitchen and board games stacked in a corner of his classroom. Asked what his favorite game was, he leaped toward the small basketball hoop hanging from a closet door.

Weems said her students all received backpacks, stuffed animals and loads of letters of support from across the U.S. and overseas, including Australia, where a school sent pencils and other small gifts with their letters.

“For the first month or two, we would spend our assembly time breaking up in groups and having the kids look at mail,” Weems said. “It’s part of our story.”

To donate to the school, go to purecharity.com/redwood-adventist-academy.

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

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