In Spite of Wildfires, Northwestern Schools Open as Scheduled
Classes have started as scheduled in Idaho and Montana public schools despite the wildfires ravaging the Northwest's forests.
The fires never threatened school buildings in those states—two of the hardest-hit by the blazes—but poor air quality forced football and cross- country teams to practice in gymnasiums and kept children inside for recess last month.
Smoke-filled air in Salmon, Idaho, prompted that district to use air purifiers and filters in its buildings. Much-needed rain and cooler temperatures over the Labor Day weekend provided some relief.
Schools played a prominent role in the Northwest's firefighting efforts, serving as community meeting halls, temporary shelters, and command centers for firefighters and the American Red Cross. While school buses transported firefighters, cafeterias prepared meals for them as well as community members.
Now, officials say the schools are an essential part of the recovery effort, providing a sense of normalcy for students whose lives were uprooted. School administrators say they are monitoring student behavior closely for signs of stress.
"There are places that look like they were hit by napalm," Superintendent Don Klepper of the Ravalli County district said last week from his office in Hamilton, Mont.
More than 75,000 fires have burned 6.6 million acres of forests and other land nationwide this year, according to the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. As of last week, more than 60 fires were still burning in California, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. New fires that broke out this month in southeast Texas were not affecting schools.
The fires consumed almost 700,000 acres in Idaho, while about 645,000 acres have burned in Montana. Parts of both states, where most fires have been contained, have been declared federal disaster areas.
"The fair in August and the livestock show, traditionally part of childhood in this valley, were lost in this area," Mr. Klepper said of the 6,500 students attending Ravalli County's schools. "If we hadn't been as resilient and tough and adaptive as we are, we wouldn't have been as fortunate as we were.
"The schools are part of the infrastructure that helped fight these fires."
Montana's school buses pull extra duty by transporting fire crews every year. But this year, firefighters still needed buses when classes started last week and in late August, said Kathy Bramer, the communications director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
The state's 457 districts had to rush required bus inspections to make sure routes were covered. And while school officials kept their doors open to support the fire-fighting effort, maintenance crews were stretched thin trying to clean buildings before students arrived.
"We looked like a little mushroom factory with all the tents around," said T.J. Eyer, the principal of Jefferson County High School in Boulder, Mont., which serves 310 students. "We were glad [the firefighters] were here, but it put us in a bind getting ready for school."
But it was fighting smoke that caused schools the most problems. School administrators checked air-quality reports hourly to determine whether students could practice sports or play outside. Mr. Klepper said thick smoke in some areas of Ravalli County made it difficult to breathe.
Nathan Olson, an assistant football coach at Darby High School in Darby, Mont., said that most preseason practices were held in the school's tiny gym. Some days, Darby's 34 football players practiced in the gym's center while the cross-country team ran laps around them.
"It was kind of hard to run pass routes and plays in the small gym we have here," Mr. Olson said of the 200-student school's facilities.
In Idaho, fire kept most of the Salmon district's 1,200 students inside when classes started Aug. 31. Superintendent Candis Donicht said engineers met in early August to devise a plan to filter clean air into the district's five schools. Private companies donated air purifiers, and $25,000 in state aid helped the district rent equipment. While air purifiers helped make the air inside breathable, rain on Sept. 1 cleared the way for children to play outside.
"We encouraged them to play in the puddles," Ms. Donicht said.
Vol. 20, Issue 2, Page 13Published in Print: September 13, 2000, as In Spite of Wildfires, Northwestern Schools Open as Scheduled