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Bond fire claims outdoor environmental school in Silverado Canyon

Amid the flurry of evacuations from the wind-driven Bond fire on Wednesday evening, administrators and educators of a Silverado Canyon outdoor school grew nervous for their nature facility headquarters that held dozens of small animals, open green spaces and was home to its caretaker and her family.

The caretaker and operations manager of the Rancho Soñado site frantically put out a call to staff to help evacuate the school’s small animals, recalled Holly Steele, one of the administrators of Inside the Outdoors, a county environmental education program.

While Steele and her husband swiftly drove from their Anaheim Hills home to the outdoor school on East Santiago Canyon Road, and as flames consumed dry brush in the canyon and pushed closer toward the site, she received a call just before midnight from the caretaker: the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was telling them to leave the area immediately.

“We got pretty close, but we turned back,” Steele said. “That was a very difficult moment to know we weren’t going to get there.”

The caretaker, her husband and two children evacuated the school safely, but had to leave behind their home and the host of animals: snakes, turtles, lizards, parrots, doves, a kestrel, an owl, rats, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits and insects.

During the next 24 hours, updates on the status of their school were hard to come by, Steele said.

Fire crews worked feverishly to keep the fast-growing inferno from homes and buildings like the school’s in Silverado, Modjeska and Williams canyons and Lake Forest.

The school had evacuated and survived the Silverado fire that started in late October. In 2007, another wildfire burned even closer, charring brush in the canyon directly behind the school though it was untouched by flames, Steele recalled.

On Thursday afternoon, Steele and other school employees got word that flames had destroyed a nearby nursery, but also found out a home right next to the school remained intact.

“So we were holding out hope,” Steele said.

Later on Thursday, private firefighters that contract with the school’s insurance company gained access to the Rancho Soñado site and confirmed their worst fears. The Bond fire had destroyed the school’s main administration building, the caretaker’s home and the trailer that held the animals who all perished in the blaze.

“I think our entire team is processing our grief with this immeasurable loss,” Steele said Friday evening.

Since the program moved its headquarters to the Silverado Canyon site in 2006, more than 100,000 students from Orange and Los Angeles counties have been bussed into the school for field trips, said Ian Hanigan, a spokesman for the Orange County Department of Education.

The program offers students a chance to learn about the relationship between humans and the environment, the role humans play in the health of the environment, including habitats of endangered species, maintaining water sources and reducing waste. The Rancho Soñado site was key in these lessons, offering students a chance to interact with animals and the green space.

The environmental education program’s loss came during California’s worst fire season on record with climate change extending the fire season into months that once brought rain and moisture to the now parched hills and canyons like Silverado Canyon.

As administrators figure out a timetable on when and how to rebuild, Steele said educators of the science program are focused on continuing to offer virtual courses for students. “Even in the face of this right now,” she said.

Five structures were reported destroyed by the Bond fire, which as of Saturday morning was measured at  7,375 acres with 40% containment.

Source: Orange County Register

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