School Climate & Safety

Calif. Schools Close As Fires Rage

By Joetta L. Sack — November 05, 2003 5 min read

Hundreds of schools shut down across Southern California last week as wildfires raged across parched land in one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the region.

No schools were known to have been destroyed by the fires as of late last week, but there was no doubt that dozens would see significant damage from soot and ash.

The California Department of Education said schools that were closed would still receive state payments for their average daily attendance. The agency’s school construction division had about 100 portable classrooms on hand to send out to schools that might be damaged.

Wildfires burned more than 690,000 acres in San Bernardino and Ventura counties near Los Angeles and in the hills to the east of San Diego, killing at least 20 people and destroying some 2,600 homes. Some schools in those areas were being used as emergency shelters for displaced residents.

In northwestern San Bernardino County, the Grand Prix, Old, and Padua fires—Southern California’s most dangerous wildfires—raced up the mountains and down into the foothills. About 20 school districts in the area were closed last week.

Fires came within a quarter-mile of four San Bernardino city elementary schools, said Linda Hill, the communications director for the 58,000-student district. Hundreds of students are now homeless because of the fires, she said, as more than 300 homes burned down or are uninhabitable in the Del Rosa Elementary School neighborhood alone.

“The sad thing is that we have safe schools, but our students have been displaced,” Ms. Hill said.

Air-Quality Concerns

Duwayne Brooks, the director of facilities for the California education department, said the agency was taking a hands-off approach during the crisis, and would get in touch with superintendents of county school districts only if necessary.

“What we tried not to do was get on the phone with school districts, because they’re having to deal with more immediate kinds of problems,” he said last week.

Late in the week, the department did not have any reports that schools had been destroyed. Most schools were shut down not because of imminent danger of destruction, Mr. Brooks said, but because of poor air quality and local leaders’ pleas for residents to stay home and leave roadways open for emergency vehicles.

San Bernardino County has been battling the fires, which may have been started by arsonists, longer than other Southern California areas.

The Grand Prix fire began on Oct. 21, and the Old and Padua fires ignited soon after. As a result, the air has been so smoky and soot-filled that students haven’t been able to play sports or go outside for recess since the Grand Prix blaze started.

Meteorologists reported that the air quality in the region was as bad as it ever had been, with an orange-gray smoke scattering an ashy debris across much of Southern California.

“For the past several days, [the air quality] has been very difficult. It looks like a constant twilight,” said Don Zimring, the deputy superintendent of the 12,200-student Las Virgenes Unified district, which is near the Simi Valley fires.

His district had not shut down, but schools had moved all activities indoors.

In San Diego County, all 42 school districts closed for at least two days last week, said Peri Lynn Turnbull, the director of communications for the 145,000-student San Diego Unified district.

When district leaders realized the seriousness of the situation on Sunday, Oct. 26, they met with emergency officials and rehearsed a disaster plan. The district immediately set up a hotline for parents and staff members to receive updates, answering some 40,000 calls last week, and offered child care to parents who had to get to work.

Principals and other employees who were able to go to their school buildings on that Sunday turned off gas lines, closed windows, and watered trees around the facilities as precautionary measures.

“So far, no schools have had any fire damage, but there’s lots of soot, and the air quality is a big concern,” Ms. Turnbull said.

The district planned to reopen on Nov. 3, and Ms. Turnbull said school officials would pay close attention to the psychological needs of students.

Late last week, the San Diego district began sending out maintenance crews to assess and repair schools. Cafeteria workers were also reporting to work to clean the cafeterias.

Mr. Brooks of the state education department said schools’ cleanup and repair needs would be determined on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, he said, returning to normal may be as simple as opening windows and turning on air-conditioning systems.

In other cases, though, it is likely that environmental specialists and industrial hygienists will need to be hired to rid schools of smoke and ash, Mr. Brooks said.

For classes to resume as soon as possible, he added, the state will lend portable classrooms to any district that needs to rebuild or clean intensively.

Cleanup Costs

The question of who pays for the cleanup and rebuilding was also on the minds of school leaders last week.

California has been notoriously short of cash and has run budget deficits as large as $38 billion out of about a $90 billion total state budget in the past two years.

President Bush has declared four Southern California counties disaster areas, opening the door for federal aid. Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Washington last week to make the case to congressional leaders for the maximum amount of aid.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced that schools that were closed because of the fires could still apply to receive the operating money based on average daily attendance that they would have received under normal circumstances.

“The costs will almost certainly run into the millions of dollars for local school agencies spread across four large Southern California counties,” said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. “We don’t have a handle on the magnitude of actual damage to schools, but there are important school funding concerns that will have to be addressed.”

The state may pay out emergency facilities aid allocated in a school construction bond passed in 2000, Mr. Brooks said. Also, the legislature could make an emergency allocation to localities that were affected by the wildfires.

It’s too soon to know just how the fires will affect the state’s economy, California educators and others agreed.

“But the state budget crisis is not equipped to handle the day-to-day costs, much less a disaster like this,” said Mr. Zimring of the Las Virgenes district.

Staff Writer Rhea R. Borja contributed to this report.

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