When Mariposa County schools start the new year next week, the district will have a handful more students who are considered homeless.
Students who lost homes in the tragic Detwiler Fire may still be living out of the county while their families figure out what comes next after losing a home, said Robin Hopper, superintendent for Mariposa County Unified School District. That means getting to school might be more difficult than in the past.
“At its last meeting, our board discussed ‘Well, do we delay school?’ The message we got back was no. We need normalcy,” Hopper said. “We need the community to heal and come back together. Our community depends on the resources at our schools.”
Although the Detwiler Fire that burned more than 81,000 acres is nearing 100 percent containment, the 5,000 or so residents who were evacuated at one point still are putting their lives together. Most lost perishable food stored in their homes when the power went out. Many lost days of wages. And those who suffered the most lost everything they owned after the fire destroyed more than 60 homes.
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California Department of Transportation paused traffic periodically on Highway 140 on Thursday to clean up charred trees. Hillsides previously dotted with brush were blackened and bare. Signs still lined the roadside expressing thanks to firefighters for saving the town of Mariposa and hundreds of homes.
The impacts on children are especially evident at the start of school nears, Hopper said.
“Imagine being a child and being told to pick the five most important things to you and we’re leaving right now,” she said. “My big priority is to ensure we don’t lose the families permanently out of county that have been displaced. We want to meet their needs financially, socially, and emotionally and ensure they have all their supplies.”
A little help came Thursday as the Merced County Sheriff’s Office explorers delivered backpacks full of school supplies to Greeley Hill Elementary.
The explorer program initially planned a camping trip in Oakhurst about the time the Detwiler Fire erupted, but the trip was canceled because of the amount of smoke in the area, said Deputy Joey Cardenas, who leads the program.
“All of the kids wanted to do something for the families, so we decided since it’s the beginning of the school year to purchase backpacks with school supplies to relieve the pressure on parents,” Cardenas said.
The explorers also “adopted” a family who lost their home in the fire.
On Thursday morning the explorers met Ramiro Iniguez, Soledad Pulido-Iniguez and their 5-year-old daughter Katalina on the property where the family’s home stood just last month. The explorers unloaded totes of clothes, canned food, school supplies and a picnic table into the family’s barn, which was untouched by flames.
Katalina, who will start kindergarten next week, immediately put on her new “Frozen” backpack and began playing with a new Barbie doll.
“We had nothing,” Pulido-Iniguez said. “They helped us get ready (for school). Total strangers have helped us. It’s overwhelming the help you get.”
The family evacuated their home on July 18. Just three days later they drove back to find a pile of rubble.
“It was like a nightmare. ... You keep the memories that you lost right here,” Pulido-Iniguez said, pointing to her heart.
The family of six stayed with friends in Merced for three weeks before moving back to a temporary home in Mariposa. On Thursday, a delivery truck pulled up to the destroyed home with boxes of dialysis solution for Iniguez, who is awaiting a kidney transplant. The delivery driver didn’t know the family lost their home.
Pulido-Iniguez attended a community meeting on Aug. 1 that provided resources for debris removal. “I just don’t know where to start,” she said.
Meanwhile, downtown Mariposa is just returning to its normal thrum of business. “I don’t think the tourists even know it happened,” said Kirstie Kari, who opened Sweetwater Grocery and Deli just three months ago.
The fire impacted every part of the local economy, not just retail and restaurants, Kari said.
Su Carney, who owns three downtown shops, said she took out a small business loan to cover the income she lost during the fire. July is typically her busiest month, so she made big orders of merchandise. Then, her stores and home were ordered to evacuate. She lost much of the sweets at her candy shop, such as ice cream, when the power went out.
“I didn’t even believe them when they told us to evacuate,” she said. “I had to be told three times.”
When she returned to her stores, it took another week to clean up the ash. Then her credit card machines stopped working, and now, her computer is acting up.
But it’s better than returning to nothing.
Said Carney: “I’m just grateful we have a mess to clean up.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477