Sonora school kids fight Rim fire fears with art

naustin@modbee.comOctober 31, 2013 

— The flames are out. The air has cleared and evacuees have long since returned to their homes. But the Rim fire still burns fresh in the minds of children who feared for their homes and grieved for wild animals lost.

At Curtis Creek Elementary, just six miles from one stand of blackened timber, students remember days spent worrying, waiting for evacuation orders and choking on smoke. Thirteen students took brushes in hand and poured their feelings into paintings and poetry that teacher Liz Miller had made into a 2014 calendar.

“Wildlife: scared, burning home, burning family, burning self,” reads the poem of Noah Porter, 11, by his muted portrait of a soulful mountain lion. Smoke swirls in shades of tan behind the animal, and ash in shades of gray. “He’s running away from the fire,” Noah explained.

Vivid shades of red, teal and black show in a picture of a helicopter pouring water on flames by Julian Petty, 12. His snippet of poetry implores the helicopter to stop the fire’s spread. “Keep the line. Save my house,” it says. Julian said he spent part of the fire at his grandmother’s restaurant in Twain Harte. “There were bears walking down the street,” he said.

The raging flames in Mattison Knobloch’s picture threaten a fox. She said she’s still worried about animals whose homes and food sources were destroyed. “They’re just dying. They have no other place to go. It’s just scary for them,” said the 9-year-old.

A muddied sun shines down on a green landscape menaced by approaching flames in the picture of Jillena Sherf, 12. In the foreground, a deer looks at viewers, wide-eyed. Jillena said she used the deer to portray a sense of loss. “It’s sitting there, looking at the land it has left, before it’s gone,” she said.

Two mountains pouring smoke sit behind a line of green trees in A.J. Bautista’s painting. “Scared. Where do we go? My family?” wrote the 13-year-old, who said he could see the burning mountains from his home. “It was hard to breathe. Sometimes it rained ash,” A.J. said. But the scariest part, he said, was seeing birds fleeing the area.

For Angelina Bettanini, 11, the scariest part was “all the rumors.” Each day brought word the fire was closer, or it wasn’t, or friends were being evacuated – no, wait, not yet. “The (fire) retardant line was right behind our house,” she said. In her picture, bears run from the fire coming over the hill.

Her bedding and clothes were boxed to move fast if evacuation orders came, but she didn’t know where they would go. “All my family lives in Tuolumne so we can’t stay with them,” Angelina said.

“Everyone was on pins and needles for while,” Miller said. At one point, she said, “Every hour the lines would change. The day before, they were moving the cattle and horses out of Tuolumne, so you knew it was getting close.” Schools across Tuolumne County closed for a week during the thickest smoke, and for weeks many recess and physical education timess were spent playing games indoors, avoiding the eye-burning, throat-scratching smoke.

Today, as many as 160 trucks a day hauling salvage timber rumble past the school on their way to the historic logging town of Standard, just down the street, and the Sierra Pacific Industries mill.

A planned arts class with local artist Tracy Knopf became a way to let students work through the experience, Miller said. Thirteen students chosen by fourth- through eighth-grade teachers stuck with the class, writing journals, learning about conservation and reforestation and studying watercolor techniques. Knopf led a schoolwide painting effort last year, creating a mural of a horse galloping through a flower-filled mountain meadow.

The 13 paintings hung in the Diamondback Grill in Sonora for most of October, and now grace the pages of the calendar, which Miller is selling for $10 each to benefit the arts and science activities of the one-school district’s Gifted and Talented Education program.

Tuolumne County residents and businesses can order calendars by emailing Those outside the county can order through, which accepts PayPal and ships orders.

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