Kamiah starts school despite devastating fires

Just two weeks ago, Peggy Flerchinger’s home burned to the ground amidst a raging forest fire in North Idaho. Today, she considers herself lucky.

The Kamiah High School principal and her family did not receive evacuation orders, though the flames were near. She got an eerie feeling as her dogs, following internal instincts, cowered under her feet.

“I just knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “There was something that just said that I needed to leave.”

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Peggy Flerchinger

The Flerchingers packed up family photos and mementos and new school clothes, supplies and toiletries. As they pulled away from their home, the strong winds shifted, raining hot ashes down onto the roof.

Within 30 minutes, the structure was engulfed in flames.

Many children who will start school Tuesday in the Kamiah School District were not so lucky. They lost everything.

“One family in particular, their mom had to drive through flames to get out. They had no warning at all,” Flerchinger said.

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The Clearwater Complex fire that took Flerchinger’s home took at least 41 others, displacing families on the eve of the 2015-16 school year.

Kamiah educators discussed postponing the start of school because of the current hazardous air conditions and the traumatic fire, which prompted a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Flerchinger, having just lost her home, was the major influence in keeping the scheduled start date.

“These kids need to be back in school, they need to have some semblance of structure, some routine,” she said. “Right now these kids are disjointed; they don’t know where they’re at. They don’t have their things. School is familiar to them. (At school) they know where they are going. They know what they are supposed to do.”

Teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools are expecting at least 15 children to enroll in school without supplies, a change of clothes or a home to return to at the end of the day.

“We are preparing for their return and we’re planning to handle the worst of it,” said superintendent Fred Mercer. “These children will receive tremendous support from us.”

Support for those who lost their homes has been far-reaching, Mercer said. The local church is taking donations of clothing and other household items and donations are pouring in from out-of-state alumni. This community support for fire losses comes despite another failed levy. On Tuesday, Kamiah voters rejected a $325,000 levy that received only 39 percent support.

“We can’t pass a levy but we can help these families,” Mercer said.

A counselor and Flerchinger are prepared to assist the displaced kids manage their grief from their losses.

“I have two kids and they are going through the process,” she said. “If there is an issue with one of the kids we will notice it and we will deal with it. They go to get something that they have always had and it’s gone. Children will react to it differently.”

A fire trauma manual has been handed out to staff. The district invested in extra backpacks and school supplies.

“We have a very supportive community,” Flerchinger said. “People have been very helpful and giving.”

When Flerchinger returned to her homestead, now charred ground and burnt rubble, she found not all was lost. Just beyond where their home stood, the chicken coop was spared. The family’s flock of ducks and chickens survived the fire that still rages in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

To donate to the school kids of Kamiah School District, please contact the district office at (208) 935-2991.