Brendan Constantine has been teaching with Idyllwild Arts summer poetry and creative writing programs for most of the last 17 years and agreed to tell his class’ evacuation story. More than 200 kids plus teachers and counselors were abruptly moved off campus. Subsequently, many students were picked up by their parents in Banning that afternoon. By Wednesday evening, about 100 kids remained, and here’s how it came down, through his eyes.
“After having lunch in the cafeteria, I went to speak with a couple people standing near the summer office,” he said. “It was about noon when one of the van drivers came running up and pointed out the smoke. I returned to the cafeteria, gathered my 10 kids ranging in age from 10 to 13. It was hot, so I suggested we go to the library to resume a drawing and writing project. Within 15 minutes or so, at about 12:40, a counselor entered and asked us to return to the Children’s Center. So, we began walking over but as we were walking, the councelor confided to me, ‘We want to keep the children calm, but we will be evacuating,’ recalls Constantine.
“Once we arrived at the Children’s Center, I said, ‘Let’s get your things together and take a walk to Husch Field.’ There was a playful but organized feel. We lined the kids up by class and roll call was completed. This all happened very fast, while unrelenting smoke and planes began to fly overhead.
“At that point, Megan Macintyre, on a bull horn, announced, ‘We’re going to leave campus.’ I was getting my kids loaded on a van headed to Idyllwild School parking lot. A line of teacher cars [was] also forming on Apela to carry students out. Many kids began walking with musical instruments, art portfolios and backpacks. I picked up a carful of walking kids to transport to the school, parked, unloaded them and went looking for the van that transported my class. About that time, there was an announcement that we’d be going to Banning High School,” relays Constantine.
“I spent our time riding down Highway 243 distracting the kids with questions, attempting to keep the kids engaged, distracted and light. ‘What different locational apps are on your phones?’ provoked jokes and laughter.
“I remember saying, ‘I’ve got you guys, you’re safe.’ My gaze was was met with calm looks. Once I was in cellular range riding down the mountain, I realized I was being contacted with questions from parents who’d already been contacted by the school that the evacuation was underway.
“Once we arrived at Banning High, we observed a group of students from Astro Camp wearing purple T-shirts, and other people presumably from Idyllwild were arriving in need of shelter. Our contingency of vehicles was waved through and into the parking lot. We were directed into the gym. Water was immediately offered to all the kids followed by fruit snacks and cheese and crackers as the afternoon wore on,” observed Constantine.
“A meds table and first aid were already set up by faculty for students with medical needs. IAA counselors began playing games with our kids, and a call and response between Astro Camp kids and IA kids began in a playful way from the bleachers.
“The obvious thing to do, it now occurred to me, was to begin engaging with questions directed to all the kids sitting around me. ‘What does this room feel like, what have you seen, how did it feel, how did the fire look?’ I began taking down their words as they created this poem.:
‘Oh, By the Way, There’s a fire’
Fire is raging,
Fire is beautiful,
From the trees
Like black mustard,
Moving like a tornado,
A vortex in the sky,
A swarm of hot locusts
We flee, we retreat, we
“Evacuate in an orderly fashion”
At a high school gym
In the next town
The smell of sweat
A loud place, hard place
Puts noise in our heads
Partly worried, partly excited
We spread out
In the huge room,
Up the bleachers
Over each other
Poem by sixth and seventh graders, IA Summer Program
Isabella, Kennedy, Maarit, Naomi and Samara
Written within an hour of their evacuation from the Cranston fire.
Brendan Constantine, facilitator
“When I began typing the poem into my phone, more kids wanted to borrow it to call their parents. This went on for a few hours. Slowly, we began to get a sense of which kids would go home today or soon versus which kids didn’t have their passports and would stay on at a hotel in Palm Springs.
“Later Wednesday night, I was offered a ride back to LA which I accepted. Early Thursday a.m., I drove back to Palm Springs intending to support the remaining children, but was not needed. By Friday, July 27, we thought we might be back in the classroom in 48 hours, but the next day we learned the fire wasn’t going away and were informed via email that we wouldn’t be completing the program and the Disney Concert was canceled.
“At this point, the kids’ situation turned from education to summer camp with a visit to a water park and movies. We provided as much fun for them as possible.
“Sunday, July 29, we were informed the campus clean-up was extensive, and the stabilizing and testing of utility systems would be conducted in the coming week. We were asked not to return to campus until Aug. 4, to pick up our teaching supplies,” Constantine remembers.
Constantine was clearly disappointed the Summer Program was ending early but amazed at the degree of thoughtful planning he witnessed under extraordinary circumstances.