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Carlsbad community weathers fierce firestorm, schools still standing

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Today, the neighborhood is quiet, bare of auto traffic and the noise of children out at recess, as the Aviara neighborhood in Carlsbad remains shut down in the wake of yesterday's ravaging Poinsettia Fire. Only a few pedestrians, anxious to see their homes but not allowed to drive to them, and a few fire trucks and ground crews populate the neighborhoods and school.

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Four homes and eighteen condo units were burned, several more damaged, and two businesses were lost, but a sigh of relief could be felt in the absence of wind as news traveled that the local elementary and middle school had been spared.

About 10:30 AM yesterday, a plume of smoke alerted students and staff at Aviara Oaks Middle School to a fire near Poinsettia Lane and Alicante Road. After sheltering in place in air-conditioned classrooms to avoid smoke and ash during what would normally be lunch break, middle school students and staff were evacuated to the lower campus of the elementary school, where parents began to arrive to pick up their frightened children. As nearly 1800 elementary and middle school students and their teachers waited outside for more instruction, the plume of smoke grew blacker and flames were evident.

Fire officials instructed school leaders to evacuate the elementary school and walk everyone down the street to the Sunrise Senior Living facility. There, water was provided, while hot and worried staff waited for parents who were struggling through gridlocked intersections to retrieve their children. It was clear from the view back up to the school that the fire was not diminishing. Some students hoped aloud that the school would burn, and teasingly asked their teachers if this meant no more homework. The mood was kept light, but some students, especially the younger ones, were visibly panicked. Teachers smiled bravely, made sure everyone drank water, and took frequent headcounts of their class. Several staff members have homes in the affected area, but they kept their concerns quiet and made their students the priority as everyone anxiously watched the smoke and flames and waited. A cheerful Ashley Crawford, AOMS's Teacher of the Year, reassured her students, "We have the best firefighters." Many students were reunited with their parents during this respite, and with a much smaller number to house, the Senior Living staff invited the school crowd indoors. There, they were offered snacks, including ice cream bars for the kids. Employees of Vons across the street brought cases of bottled waters to distribute as well.

But strong winds pushed the fire south, causing the evacuation of the Senior Living Facility, so students and staff set out again on foot, walking down El Camino Real towards the fire station at La Costa. Throughout this series of moves, parents were updated by Superintendent Suzette Lovely via the phone all-call system. More parents arrived at the new evacuation site, relieved to finally hug their kids, while children still waiting crowded into an air conditioned room at the station with T.V. and access to restrooms. Vons employees followed with a shopping cart full of granola bars to keep the group sustained.

There were fewer than thirty students left, so administrative staff offered to stay with them and released most teachers to go home around 3PM. But with no cars - they were parked back at the school, still an active fire zone - and some with no phones, wallets, or house keys, coordinating rides home became an exercise in staff bonding. Teachers walked together to points beyond the traffic blocks, and spouses arrived to taxi groups of teachers to one area of North County or another. Flippin' Pizza generously delivered more than enough pies to feed the adults and children still sheltered there, and the last children were reunited with their parents about 6:30PM.

Poinsettia Elementary School was evacuated also, to Carrillo Elementary in San Marcos, where parents were told to pick up their children yesterday afternoon. Superintendent Lovely reported on an all-call that all Poinsettia students had been safely returned to their parents by approximately 3PM.

Reports sent throughout the evening to Aviara Oaks Middle School staff by principal Megan Arias were positive. She reported, "The school is safe," and "I was out there with the police securing the campus last night." Due to an erroneous report by NBC 7 News around 7PM, many feared the destruction of the 6th grade building at Aviara Oaks Middle. Follow-up reports this morning confirmed that, amazingly, no school buildings had been damaged.

Carlsbad schools across the district closed for Thursday and Friday, with only critical management reporting today and custodial and technical staff reporting tomorrow for facilities assessment and clean-up. Carlsbad's District Office was also forced to relocate yesterday, due to proximity to the fire and lack of power. They have set up their command station at the Carlsbad Safety Center at Faraday. Other area schools closed for today as well, due to road blockages, evacuations in close areas, power outages, and concerns about air quality. A complete list can be found on the San Diego County Office of Education website. The YMCA is offering free child care for youngsters from Kindergarten through sixth grade, so parents who cannot stay home during the school closures may find assistance there. Call (800) 481-2151 for more information.

A visit to the Aviara Oaks campuses at mid-day today reveals that school buildings are indeed undamaged. Weary firefighters are staying vigilant on site and at points on the hills and ridges in the area, prepared to address hot spots that flare into flames. Temperatures remain high with low humidity, but winds today are much calmer than yesterday on the coast, helping crews maintain control. As of noon, the fire was 60% contained, with hopes that containment will increase.

The great news is that everyone is safe, and despite the loss of homes in the area, the community is still standing. Several of the homes destroyed belong to Aviara Oaks families such as the Gilmores, so their loss cuts to the heart of the school community.

School is set to reconvene throughout Carlsbad on Monday. It will undoubtedly be a reunion filled with relief, recommittment to the community, and reaching out to those who lost homes. The heart of this small suburban enclave will heal, through the caring and cooperation of the families, businesses, churches, and schools that still stand.

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