LOLO – The memory of the Lolo Creek wildfire and its spectacular blowup still sharp, 41 students returned to classes at Woodman School on Tuesday, thankful for fall’s familiar routine.
Many students in the historic K-8 school along U.S. Highway 12 had to evacuate their homes a few weeks ago because of the wildfire’s rapid approach, and it was uncertain whether school would begin on time this September, said Louise Rhode, a supervisory teacher at the school.
“It’s been a little scattered, but you can tell everyone is glad to be back,” Rhode said as students settled in for their first afternoon at work.
The custodian busily shampooed carpets, washed walls and repainted to restore the school from smoke damage from the flames, which reached within yards of the back of the building, Rhode said.
On the edge of the playground, in fact, water tenders stood sentinel on Tuesday and a hillside of blackened trees revealed the burn’s extent.
Inside the building, students had fire-related lessons, including evacuation plans for flash floods and some safety reminders about smoldering debris remaining in the area.
“Now we have to learn to do with what we have left,” Rhode said.
In art, students drew a memory from the fire – other than flames.
Yes, a fire is flames, Rhode said. “But it is a little bit more than a flame when it comes this close to your house.”
Sixth-grader Aly Bledsoe drew a bleak, black landscape, with flames engulfing some of the trees.
“The trees are just twigs now – all pointy and scary,” she said.
Aly and her brother, Luke, were on vacation when the fire tore down the ridge and began to threaten homes.
“We were pretty devastated because we didn’t know when we were coming back or if we could come back,” Aly said.
Luke, an eighth-grader, said he wasn’t worried about the school because he figured firefighters would work extra hard to save the historic white building, long an icon along the highway.
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“I was mainly worried about my friend,” he said.
Returning to school and having friends to talk to about the experience has helped them feel normal again, the two said, but they’re left with a sad feeling.
“Because the beautiful Lolo Creek area used to beautiful, but now it’s just black spots everywhere,” Luke said.
Sixth-grader Isabell Gilleard ended up staying in the same hotel as Luke and Aly while their families waited on word about their properties.
“It was pretty scary,” Isabell said as she worked on her drawing of a rocky hill stripped of vegetation by the fire.
“It was just moving too fast that we didn’t have time to grab anything,” she said about the fire and the quick exit her family made.
“I feel really relieved that it’s still standing because that’s where all the household memories are,” she said.
Lessons from the fire will continue to be woven into the school curriculum and fire crew members are expected to come to the school to answer questions and explain the firefighting process, Rhode said.
Students and community members also will compile a yearbook-style publication about the fire and their experiences, she added.
While reminders of the fire are all around the community in the form of smoking stumps and scarred hillsides, students should remember that they are lucky, Rhode said.
“There are communities that are dealing with the loss of 1,500 homes,” she reminded students.
Aly Bledsoe said she feels bummed the green mountainsides where she used to hikes are blackened and dangerous because of stumps filled with hot ash and snags.
However, the hills will be green again, she said.
“You have to think positive,” she said.