Escaping California’s Santa Catalina Island ahead of a raging blaze was not the curriculum planned for 100 students, teachers and parents of Scottsdale’s Cheyenne Traditional School.
Thankfully, they have the weekend to recover from a journey that began Tuesday with excitement but ended Friday morning amid choking smoke, anxiety and an evacuation via a nightmarish boat ride.
Too bad most of their luggage is still on the island.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to forget this,” said eighthgrader Matt Drolshagen, who took the trip with twin sister Mackenzie.
Added mother Kris Drolshagen: “I’m very, very grateful to have them home.”
More than 30 miles away from the fire, a second group from a Scottsdale school remained on the island until their scheduled departure.
The 113 students and adults from Desert Canyon Middle School returned to the Valley late Friday.
As of Friday afternoon, the fire had burned about 4,200 acres on the 76-square-mile island, and it was 35 percent contained.
Officials said firefighters had made progress and the scenic town of Avalon was no longer threatened.
The students were visiting the island to study marine biology and oceanography through the Long Beach Marine Institute. Snorkeling and dissecting a squid were just a couple of activities on their schedule.
Hosting the 85 students and 14 adults (five teachers and nine parent chaperones) from Cheyenne was Campus by the Sea, about 2 miles northwest of Avalon and reachable only by boat.
It was shortly after noon on Thursday, about 24 hours after the group’s arrival, when the field trip went up in smoke.
There was a controlled burn, Matt Drolshagen thought, and that explained why there was a white cloud coming off the nearby terrain.
But within 30 minutes, the smoke turned black and breathing was difficult. Kris Drolshagen said it was at this time Mackenzie got ashes in her eyes.
First, the snorkeling was canceled.
Then, the word came down to the students: Go back to your bunks, grab only your essentials and get ready to leave.
There was a short boat ride out of the smoke to Avalon, and they hadn’t been there 10 minutes before the situation escalated.
“The fire started spreading all over the place,” Matt recalled. “It jumped down the mountain and started burning even closer to Avalon.
“When the power went out, that’s when I thought it was getting bad.”
For the next hours, the group could do little but wait for evacuation and watch.
And there was much to watch. There were slurry bombers making runs, and a Coast Guard ship delivering supplies and firefighters. The hillside behind Avalon continued to burn, black smoke belching into the sky.
“It was nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Matt said. “It was awesome to see, and kind of scary at the same time.”
At 10:30 p.m., the time to leave had arrived.
The group boarded the boat — and soon learned the hard way they were at the rough sea’s mercy because of the vessel’s broken stabilizer. That part was supposed to have been fixed Thursday night, but the evacuation took priority over repairs. If you stayed below decks, Matt said, the motion and stuffiness made you vomit. If you went topside, you were soon doused by the swells sending forth a chilling spray. “That boat ride, I wanted it to end so quick,” he said. “I felt so sick.” All this while, Kris Drolshagen had no contact with her children. She credited the school for its periodic e-mail updates, but that didn’t prevent a sleepless night. Finally, the boat arrived in Long Beach. “Oh, it felt great to be on solid ground,” Matt said. Buses home were waiting, and so was sleep. Matt said he talked with his friends for 10 minutes after boarding, and then woke up 10 minutes from Scottsdale. “It was fun, and then it wasn’t that fun when the fire was going,” he said “But at least you got to see something not a lot of people get to see.”