Firefighters and sheriff’s deputies welcomed Redwood Adventist Academy students Monday morning as they returned to campus nearly a year after the Tubbs fire wiped out their entire school.
The Mark West Springs Road campus looked drastically different than the one students, faculty and parents remembered — the fire had destroyed every building on the site, requiring the school to install portable classrooms for this school year. Nonetheless, they were excited to be back together once again.
“It’s been a stressful, long ride. Last year was tough,” said Principal Angie Weems, who worked through last school year and the summer to get students back on campus. “But being back out there has been energizing.”
Redwood is a close-knit private school, where roots run deep. Founded 87 years ago, alumni have sent their children and grandchildren to the school, which was located on Wright Road in southwest Santa Rosa until 1971 when the Mark West campus was built.
Kaitlyn McGauley, whose 9-year-old daughter, Kate, attends the fourth grade, felt students needed a proper welcoming, so she worked with faculty and fire and sheriff’s officials to organize the event on the first day of school.
“It’s such a close family here,” McGauley said. “We’re going to come right on back empowered.”
Deputies handed out to students sheriff’s badge stickers and pencils, while parents took pictures, including of the firemen who battled the blaze that overtook the then 128-student campus.
“It’s really important for us to be here during the good times as well as the bad,” Sonoma County sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said. “It’s good to see them back together as a community.”
For Shawn Johnson, an engineer with Rincon Valley Fire, being back on Mark West Springs Road was personal. He and other firefighters drove their rig on that road during the Tubbs fire, rescuing people from the growing flames. Seeing kids back on campus brought him comfort.
“We’ve driven by and seen the empty lot for months,” Johnson said.
Students also felt relief being back on campus.
They ran around the blacktop with friends and peered into the colorfully decorated portable classrooms. For Kate McGauley, it was hard to put into words the excitement.
“Happy,” she said. “Just happy.”
While students in kindergarten to eighth grade returned to campus, the high school program was suspended for the year until school officials can figure out what they can afford to rebuild.
Redwood lost about 25 students, not counting the high schoolers, Weems said.
Some families relocated after the fires, while others left after the high school program was suspended.
School officials hope to have rebuild plans approved by November so they can begin construction on a more condensed, modern structure.
Weems said the rebuilding process has been drawn-out. The cleanup was difficult because every structure, down to the scarred foundation, had to be dug up and land had to be cleared. Everything needs to be redone, from plumbing and electrical lines, which costs a lot of money and time.
“When you accept a job to be principal, this is not in the job description. People forget and move on to the next thing and we’re still not recovered. It’s still real, it’s still raw,” Weems said. “(But) to drive away from Mark West Spring, which has been black for so long, and see lights on campus is something.”
This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here
Read all of the PD’s fire coverage here