Kids in the five northern Mat-Su schools are settling into the classroom again after a week off during the McKinley Fire.

“It’s so good to see you. We’re so excited for a great week,” said Willow Elementary Principal Jennifer Rinaldi as kids got off the bus.

Teachers chalked messages on the sidewalks for the students’ return Tuesday morning.

The kids are still learning the routine; they only had two days of school before the McKinley Fire started along the Parks Highway, about 20 miles north of their school.

“We want to let you know it’s been a little bit of a scary time and we understand that,” Rinaldi told students during her morning announcement. “We are happy you are here and we are here for you. Every adult in the building is here to support you.”

In Elizabeth Lycan’s first grade class, students got an opportunity to share what they experienced.

“I’m really glad your house did not catch on fire,” Lycan told one girl.

Six-year-old Matthew Arterburn’s family took in some friends who had to evacuate their home for a week.

“I saw smoke and my friend was screaming, crying at his house. I felt bad for him,” Matthew said. His friend’s house survived the fire and Matthew’s mom said the family returned this week.

Lycan said it’s important for the kids to have an outlet for their emotions.

“I don’t think you can really move on to teaching until you discuss what they are bringing into the classroom. Having that time to really express how they’re feeling, acknowledge that it’s real and that we do feel for them,” she said.


The students colored pictures of firefighters to show their appreciation for the responders.

“Cause they’re being nice to us, trying to save our houses,” Matthew said.

Kale Casey, the public information officer for the Division of Forestry, stopped by to talk about the McKinley Fire.

“We have 500 firefighters out there,” he told the students.

The kids had questions about ash pits, flare-ups and whether flames could spread to their school.

“Your teachers have you in a really safe place because all around this school is the easiest place to defend,” Casey explained. “Because there’s nothing growing except for the pretty things that should be here and they don’t want to burn. This is a really safe place, Billy, you don’t have to worry about it.”

Rinaldi said the school will continue to have discussions to ease the children’s concerns.

“Thank you!” the kids shouted to Casey.

“Thank you for your patience,” Casey responded.

After a week of wondering and worrying, the kids are finally back on track for the school year.

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