“We’re evacuating the school!” announced a woman’s voice on the other end of the line when this reporter called Castle Rock Elementary School last Wednesday afternoon.
Although the school’s northbound route bus driver, Doug Thomas, had been able to deliver students to their usual Dunsmuir and Mt. Shasta stops, the Delta Fire, which had just started along I-5 in northern Shasta County, was burning on both sides of the highway, forcing closures for both north and southbound traffic. That made it impossible for the school’s southbound bus drivers to deliver the Castle Rock School’s Lakehead area students to their usual route stops.
So arrangements were quickly made with Dunsmuir High School principal/superintendent Ray Kellar for the Castle Rock students to be evacuated out of Castella to safe harbor in the DHS gymnasium.
Upon arrival, students ranging from preschool to 8th grade embarked on some lively after-school playtime. The gym was a blur of playful activity as rubber balls were bouncing and flying, hula hoops were swirling, foam “fun noodles” were being dragged about, and basketball hoops were being conquered while a central volleyball net inspired extemporaneous cooperative games between students of all ages.
The students’ tireless energy and unflagging spirits made for a buoyant atmosphere.
Principal Kellar was a gracious host. He made sure the maintenance staff brought in a huge pallet of blankets and large crates of folding cots for the boys and girls and their teachers. He and his wife later made a return visit to campus to make sure everyone was comfortable and had everything they needed.
Castle Rock Elementary School principal/superintendent Autumn Funk managed the entire evacuation “field trip” in exemplary fashion, ensuring that students were well-supervised and cared for.
The principals and teachers handled the emergency school outing in a way that made it a well-organized event.
All the Castle Rock School staff who were in the DHS gym to supervise the children provided a familiar, caring presence.
Four of the Castle Rock School teachers have been personally been affected by fires this year.
Lisa Smyth, the preschool teacher, said her husband is a firefighter. She said he’s been out on fires “since the end of June” and that he’d just gotten off the Carr Fire when the Delta Fire broke out.
Castle Rock School teachers Carrie Beale (K-1), Derek Hartigan (grades 4-5), and David Sommers (6-8) all live in Redding and had to be evacuated for 10 days during the massive Carr Fire. Although they’ve been re-installed in their homes for about a month now, they are still experiencing the devastating effects of that fire.
Beale describes the landscape that now surrounds her Redding home as a scene from “Nightmare Before Christmas.”
In spite of the serious situation responsible for Wednesday’s impromptu “field trip,” students had a lot of fun just being kids. The day even included the happy occasion of 3rd grader Sara Due losing a tooth.
In addition to their free play time, students enjoyed a snack break in the DHS cafeteria and were later provided dinner and story time. The adventurous day concluded with a sleepover on folding cots with the comfort of blankets.
The initial number of evacuated students was 20, which quickly became 18 after a couple of students’ parents were able to get to Dunsmuir to pick them up. So, 18 children sheltered overnight at the DHS gym, along with six school staff members who stayed overnight to care for the children.
Sometime early the next morning, another four students were picked up by their parents. And by 7 a.m., arrangements had been made for the remaining 14 students to be transported into Redding, so their parents could get to them.
Due to the I-5 road closure and the long, circuitous alternate routes, the entire round trip between Dunsmuir and Redding and back to Castella took Castle Rock School bus drivers John Slinger and John Tiersma 10 hours.
John Tiersma said there was a happy reunion in the parking lot of the Rite-Aid store on Shasta Lake Blvd. in Redding when the children were safely back with their parents. He said the evacuees’ parents were happy and excited to be reunited with their children after the unexpected school sleepover.
Due to mandatory evacuation up to the southern Siskiyou County border and the closure of Interstate-5 through the Delta Fire area, Castle Rock Elementary was closed both Thursday and Friday while the Delta Fire continued to expand with no containment.
Fortunately, the students were all safe, having been restored to their families after their spur-of-the-moment evacuation “field trip.”
As of Monday morning, I-5 was re-opened for one lane of travel each way and preparations were underway to re-open the school on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Castella Fire Department was cleaning up the school Monday, hosing down all the ash, which would have otherwise posed a health hazard to the children.
In a follow-up interview on Sunday, principal Funk said she wanted to express “a great big thank you to Dunsmuir High School, because they really took care of us – providing blankets and food” for Castle Rock's evacuees.