BASTROP, Texas — Paying attention in class may never have been so hard for children who started school Monday after the most-destructive wildfire in Texas history left hundreds of their families homeless and many with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Fed by howling winds whipped up by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, flames streaked across drought-stricken Texas, where more than 190 fires statewide have killed four people. The worst damage was in Bastrop, where two smaller fires joined to form a monster blaze that has destroyed more than 1,550 homes and charred more than 34,000 acres.
With firefighters still trying to contain the wildfire and power and water cut off to some areas, many in the Bastrop area remain under evacuation orders. School buses stopped Monday at hotels including the Super8, Best Western and Holiday Inn Express to pick up students. Desk clerks said most of the people in the hotels were people displaced by the fires.
The school district provided breakfast and lunch for all students since many families don't have access to kitchens to pack lunches or make meals, spokesman Donald Williams said. Counselors from across Bastrop, with its charming downtown of quaint, colonial-style streets and shops, as well as health professionals from nearby school districts were called in to help school counselors.
Seven students at Mina Elementary School and four employees have lost their homes so far, principal Martha Werner said. The number could rise as 1,350 firefighters from Texas and around the country get the fire under control and begin assessing damage to individual properties.
Still, only 24 of the school's 435 kindergarten through fourth-grade students failed to show for the first day of classes. The tally includes not only students left homeless or forced to move-in with relatives in other communities, but some who fell ill with smoke inhalation or other fire-related problems.
Only 6 percent of students were absent district-wide, spokesman Donald Williams said.
"Today has really been a smooth day," Werner said. "A lot of smiles from the kids. It looked from afar mostly like a normal day, except for a few more hugs and a little extra loving and attention."
She added, "I want our school to be a safe place and a happy place because their home life can be difficult for some right now."
Teachers read an announcement about the fire, and students were encouraged to share their stories. Older children wrote in journals about their experiences, while some of the younger ones drew pictures.
"Some won't speak but they'll draw you a picture and you'll know what's on their mind," Werner said. "Some of them wanted to know, `Is the fire still out there, is it going to get us?'"
The lobby of the Bastrop Independent School District headquarters was piled high with donated backpacks, pencils, notebooks and binders. Supplies had already been distributed to many children in need, and across the city so many residents have donated food, clothing and furniture that many aid centers said they simply didn't have the space to take more.
Rocky Hernandez took the day off of work from his job with the city of Austin to make sure his 11-year-old got off to school on time. The fire spared their home, even as it devoured most of a nearby state park, because winds pushed the flames in another direction.
"Everybody's still hyped up," Hernandez said. "I don't know how they're supposed to be thinking, be learning anything. It doesn't seem like a couple of days is enough."
One student who missed school was sixth grader Wesley Graf, 11, whose family has been staying with relatives in the nearby town of Lockhart.
His father, 44-year-old James Graf, returned to their home Monday and found it undamaged but they won't be allowed to move back in for several more days. Until then, they hope to get a room at a local hotel, paid for with federal disaster assistance.
James grinned when asked if he had missed school.
"Not really," he said. But his father said his summer vacation was over.
"He's going back tomorrow and that's something he needs, something that's good for him," James Graf said. "But he also needed to know the house was OK. I didn't want him to have to go to school thinking about it all day."