Several fires burning in California’s mountains have already caused a Turlock Unified School District campus to reschedule its annual Sixth Grade Camp, and this week, Turlock Christian junior high and high schools were forced to host a retreat for students here at home as flames continue to threaten their woodland escape, Sugar Pine Christian Camp.
Unhealthy air quality around Foothill Horizons Outdoor School in Sonora, run by the Stanislaus County of Education, resulted in Crowell Elementary School postponing its sixth graders’ four-day stay at the camp, courtesy of the three Summit Complex fires burning in the Stanislaus National Forest.
South of Foothill Horizons in Sugar Pine, the Railroad Fire has already destroyed six homes since it began burning Aug. 29. The choice to cancel the schools’ trip was difficult, but necessary, said Turlock Christian Superintendent Karen Winter.
“We just said, ‘The safety of the kids has to come first,’” said Winter. “Now, we’re pretending we’re up in the mountains with all of the beautiful trees we have here on campus.”
Despite the change of plans, Turlock Christian’s 240 students made the best of their situation, gathering on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for three days of music and team-building activities at their Monte Vista Chapel campus.
“I was really disappointed when I heard we weren’t going to Sugar Pine this year, because it’s my favorite part of the year,” said junior Mayah Salas. “I was hoping for the best, but wasn’t really sure what we were going to do instead. Once I got out here and saw all of this, it’s been a lot more fun than I expected.”
Inflatable entertainment like jousting and bungee racing filled the school’s large lawn, and students had the opportunity to rock climb, line dance and even take aim at a giant, Velcro target with an equally-sticky soccer ball. Earlier in the morning, the Christian music group The Katinas held a personal concert for the school, and students were able to bond at an ice cream social, barbecue lunch and campfire over the course of their three-day break from classes.
Junior high students had their own retreat as well, taking part in the on-field activities with their high school counterparts and participating in their own events, including an etiquette banquet and rocket building.
“When these kids are graduated and look back, sure, they might remember their classes and their grades, but what they’re really going to remember are the experiences like this,” said high school Principal David Schnurstein.
Since Turlock Christian students began camping at Sugar Pine in 2015, they’ve usually focused on not just adventure, said Winter, but character building as well. She and the school’s chaplain, Rick Ryan, wanted those same goals to carry over into their makeshift camp here in Turlock.
“It might look like a lot of fun and games – and they are having lots of fun – but they are building relationships,” said Winter. “That’s really what it’s all about, and why we think it’s important to stop class for a couple of days to do this.”
Crowell didn’t hold their own camp on campus, but their trip to Foothill Horizons, originally planned to take place this week, will be rescheduled according to TUSD Chief Communication Director Marie Russell. Trips for the District’s other eight elementary campuses are scheduled between Sept. 19 and Dec. 1, with Cunningham, Dutcher and Medeiros all slated to attend Sixth Grade Camp at the end of September.
As of Sept. 6, the Summit Complex fires were nine percent contained. Just southwest of the Summit Complex fires, the Creek Fire began on Sept. 3 and has burned 190 acres. It’s estimated that all four fires will be contained by Oct. 31.
According to Crowell Principal Margaret Osmer, staff at Foothill Horizons monitors fire conditions, then alerts schools to cancel their plans if the area is deemed unsafe.
The outdoor education center hasn’t alerted the District about the safety surrounding upcoming trips yet, said Russell, but she hopes the fires will be under control by the time Cunningham and Dutcher prepare to leave on Sept. 19.