School at Peak of Post-Fire Relief

Times Staff Writer

Most teens would return to school after a three-week break with sour faces and complaints about homework, book reports and pop quizzes.

But the 1,700 students at Rim of the World High School near Lake Arrowhead returned Monday, the first day of school after wildfires in the region sparked widespread evacuations, brimming with relief that their classmates were safe -- and even, strangely enough, that their school was still standing.

Returning students were greeted by cheerleaders waving "Welcome Back" signs. As they streamed into the gym for a morning rally, students hugged, shook hands and grinned as they reunited with friends they hadn't seen since they were evacuated Oct. 25, when fast-moving flames engulfed the mountain.

"When I was down in the valley, I was thinking, 'Man, I wish I were at school, because I would know I have a home,' " said Alyssa Paul, 14, as she recounted the events of the last three weeks with fellow students during a morning class.

Rim of the World Unified was the last school district in San Bernardino County to reopen after the wildfires. Relieved high school administrators said they believe that only eight students lost homes to the flames. School attendance Monday was nearly 100%, they said.

But administrators worry that the stress of the evacuations and the sight of scorched homes and trees could cause delayed emotional problems. Extra counselors were assigned to district schools, looking out for students who have become withdrawn, irritable or distracted.

Some students acknowledged that the evacuations were traumatic.

Ridgeway Wilson, 14, was on a field trip with the high school band when the fires broke out. Instead of returning to the school, she and the entire busload of band members were taken to an evacuation center in San Bernardino.

"I was waiting, sitting at the bottom of the mountain, watching the entire mountain burn," she said, sitting at a desk during her third-period leadership class. "I didn't know when I would ever get back home."

School secretary Mary Moran couldn't go back. Her home of 25 years in nearby Crestline was devoured by fire. She was able to evacuate with her dogs and a few photographs. As teachers and students filed past her desk Monday morning, she showed them digital photos on her computer of her home's charred remains.

"Everyone that knows [what happened] has offered to help," she said.

Like most of the students, Moran said she felt comforted to be back at school, surrounded by friends.

"Thank God I have some place normal to come to," she said.

The Old fire in San Bernardino County claimed six lives, scorched more than 91,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. Flames shot up the mountainside toward the tiny community of Rimforest -- elevation 5,700 feet -- coming within a few feet of Rim of the World High School.

Several teens admitted -- to their own embarrassment -- that they worried about losing the high school to the fire.

"If the school burned down, where would we go to school?" asked 14-year-old Sean McGrath. "We would just sit at home?"

Besides seeing their school and friends again, the students got another bit of good news: At a rally, Principal Guy Bananno announced that the students did not have to make up the 14 days of classes lost during the evacuation. The news was met with a loud cheer from the students. Still, he said, tests and reports would be rescheduled.

By Monday, teachers had already incorporated the fire into classroom lessons.

An economics teacher was talking to his class Monday about how the fire will affect the supply and demand for housing on the mountain. The teacher of a digital photography class plans to have students compile maps and pictures of the devastation into a multimedia presentation. A pottery teacher plans to mix ash from the fire with clay for making pots, cups and vases.

"They are trying to use as much as they can out of it," Bananno said.

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