STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Camp fire in Northern California has displaced several thousand children who the community hopes to get back in school. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Heather Senske saw the Camp fire erupt in Paradise last Thursday morning from afar. She was driving to her job in nearby Oroville, where she's the county head of child development programs.
HEATHER SENSKE: When I saw the plume of smoke change from black to sort of brown and gray, I knew that it was moving.
GOLDMAN: Which meant she had to move too. With three preschools under her jurisdiction, 150 3- and 4-year-old kids were getting dropped off by their parents right then. Senske suddenly realized that was a bad idea, parents driving away and then having to return amidst chaos.
SENSKE: When you've got little kids, it becomes super challenging.
GOLDMAN: So Senske's office sent out an auto-dial all-call warning parents and teachers of the approaching danger and that school was canceled.
SENSKE: So the fact that we still had parents there and they could just scoop their kids up and leave immediately, that was truly a saving grace for all of us.
GOLDMAN: She says a total of 600 preschool-age kids survived the fire. But most of the schools in Paradise were destroyed. And now the youngest face the same reality as older school kids. Where do they go? The Butte County Office of Education estimates between 5,000 and 5,700 children were displaced by the fire.
ELLIE: My name is Ellie. I'm 7.
GOLDMAN: Ellie Ann Wrobell and her mom were at the Walmart parking lot in Chico this week. It's become a makeshift tent city and donation center for fire evacuees. The Wrobells are lucky. They're staying in a local hotel paid for by friends. Ellie's mom Kiley says that employees let Ellie use a hotel computer to do a math and reading program. But Kiley wants her daughter back in school as soon as possible.
KILEY WROBELL: Because she just started soaring in her reading and huge milestones in second grade. And I want that back.
GOLDMAN: Teachers are feeling the same pull.
ERIKA ETCHISON: I just feel for so many of our parents and our families because I know that those kids need the routine. And we don't - we can't give it to them right now.
GOLDMAN: Thirty-one-year-old Erika Etchison is a middle school math teacher at a charter school in Paradise. The school survived the fire, but Etchison's home didn't. Eight months pregnant, she had a harrowing escape the morning of the fire. Now she's living in a trailer with her husband, her 2-year-old daughter and her dog.
ETCHISON: It's hard. It's hard to sit here every single day and not do for our families what we've got to do every single day. It's gut-wrenching. And I really hate it. I wish it was different.
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TIM TAYLOR: So we're all going through a lot of trauma. But you guys have now a duty. We've got to stay in our lane and get these kids into school at all costs.
GOLDMAN: Butte County School Superintendent Tim Taylor rallied his administrators and teachers yesterday in Chico. Today, Taylor's expected to announce a December 3 reopen date for the county's schools, all of which are closed because of the harmful cloud of toxic smoke still hanging over much of the area. Taylor vows to get all the displaced kids in a school room somewhere. We're not leaving anybody, he says, at the door. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Chico.
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