'A reason the schools survived:' Campuses feared lost in Black Forest fire are largely unscathed

June 21, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013 at 10:22 am
photo - The School in the Woods stands untouched Thursday, June 13, 2013, after firefighters saved it during the first night of the Black Forest Fire.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The School in the Woods stands untouched Thursday, June 13, 2013, after firefighters saved it during the first night of the Black Forest Fire. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Mark Hatchell, superintendent of Academy School District 20, didn't get much sleep the night of June 11. Authorities had contacted him at 9:40 p.m., saying it was likely that an elementary school in his district, Edith Wolford, had burned in the Black Forest fire, which started earlier that day.

That afternoon, Hatchell had watched plastic slides melt like candles on the school's playground before the security cameras went black.

Hatchell also was told "it wasn't looking good" for another site under his jurisdiction, School in the Woods.

With a heavy heart, Hatchell called Bob Wedel, the principal of both schools, and board of education members to pass on the bad news. "I was very sad for the students and the staff. I thought, 'What an incredible loss for the district and the community.' Then, I thought, 'Where are we going to put those students next year?'?" Hatchell said.

He went to the fire checkpoint at Meridian and Shoup roads the next morning at 4:30.

"I heard that maybe the school (Edith Wolford) was OK," Hatchell said.

Then, he saw for himself, as authorities let him briefly tour the area: Both schools were still standing. It was clear that the fire had raged up to the buildings, and remnants smoldered around the properties.

"The lower bricks on the gym at Edith Wolford are scorched. All three playgrounds burned," Hatchell said. "You really can see the fight they put in to protect it."

Firefighters from far and near stood with their backs against the School in the Woods, as if to say to the flames, "Not today," Sheriff Terry Maketa said during a daily media briefing last week.

Wedel, the principal of the schools for six years, said the community breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing that the school buildings were only minimally damaged.

Edith Wolford, which has about 300 students, is nearly 60 years old and has educated three generations of Black Forest families, he said.

"It really is the center of the community, in that regard," Wedel said. "I knew we'd have students who lost their homes. I couldn't imagine that they'd lost their school, too."

Fifty-three of the 91 families in D-20 whose homes were destroyed have children who attend Edith Wolford, Hatchell said. Twenty-two staff members in the district also lost their homes.

At 13710 Black Forest Road, Edith Wolford was near the origin of the fire, and the entire area surrounding the school has heavy devastation, Wedel said.

School in the Woods is 4 miles away. The school enrolls 78 fourth-graders from across the district for an outdoor education curriculum.

"Even though students are only there for a year, it's an impactful year," Wedel said.

Established 14 years ago, the school has modular buildings, a greenhouse, amphitheater, a new solar project and a canvas tepee, which embers didn't touch.

"I think there was a reason the schools survived, other than the firefighters, and that says a lot about my hope for education and the fact that so many families do want their children to return," Wedel said.

The most pressing question from parents who have been impacted by the fire is whether their children can still attend the schools, even if they've been displaced from their homes.

Hatchell said the district has committed to providing transportation for those students next year, wherever they are living.

About 100 students congregated at the district's administration building Monday and Tuesday to receive counseling and see friends.

"It was a chance for them to play together and be kids again and get away from all the stress," Wedel said.

Many teachers also came.

"We felt it was just as important for the kids to see us, as it was for us to see them," Wedel said. "We need to be there to provide emotional support and help the families in any way we can.

"This isn't going to go away in a week or a month," he said.


fire relief

To benefit the 161 students and 22 staff members in Academy School District 20 who lost their homes in the Black Forest fire, the Academy School District 20 Education Foundation has established the Black Forest Fire Support Fund. Money collected will be used for education-related expenses. In addition, the foundation has pledged all proceeds from its annual golf tournament to this cause.

Checks may be made out to Black Forest Fire Support Fund and mailed to: Academy School District 20 Education Foundation, c/o Air Academy Federal Credit Union, P.O. Box 62910, Colorado Springs, CO 80962-2910, attention: Deborah Haas-Henry.

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