Dr. J. Michael McGrath Elementary School students hold hands as they enter buses that transported them from Green Thumb Nursery where they evacuated to Newhall Elementary School where their parents picked them up. Tammy Murga/ The Signal

Jake Fire: McGrath Elementary on evacuating

By Tammy Murga and Emily Alvarenga

Signal Staff Writers

From teachers to cafeteria staff, a sea of Dr. J. Michael McGrath Elementary School personnel scrambled to safely evacuate students and reunite them with their parents after a 9-acre fire broke out on the outskirts of the campus Wednesday afternoon. 

The blaze, which ignited at approximately 12:51 p.m. adjacent to the school, prompted school officials to evacuate all present in the building as the Newhall School District notified parents via email, text and calls by 1:24 p.m., a situation Superintendent Jeff Pelzel said ran “smoothly at a moment where things can get hectic.” 

“We were first directed to evacuate our students because of the fire up the hill through Deputy Jake (Drive) then it became evident that we had to make our way down the hill,” he said. “We made our way to Green Thumb (Nursery on Newhall Avenue) and that ended up being a great location. All things considered, it really ran smoothly.” 

While en route to the business’ parking lot, where some students would eventually meet their parents, students made the trek holding each others’ hands, many of them looking up in awe as Super Scooper planes flew over them to fight the flames. 

A Super Scooper makes a drop on a 9-acre brush fire at the end of Dockweiler Derive in Newhall on Wednesday, November 6, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

At least a dozen school buses from the district and from the William S. Hart Union High School District awaited direction from school officials on whether they would have to redirect students to a separate location. 

Buses eventually transported remaining students to Newhall Elementary School, where parents were instructed to pick up their kids. 

Newhall resident and parent Reyna Del Toro was relieved to have her 6-year-old daughter Victoria in her arms after arriving at Green Thumb. 

“I received a call from my sister-in-law that they saw (the fire) in the news, so I came running over here,” said Del Toro as she embraced Victoria, who was crying. 

Students from McGrath Elementary School arrive at nearby Newhall Elementary School after they were evacuated due to the nearby Jake Fire on Wednesday afternoon. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

Just more than a mile away, parents called to their children as they waited for them to get off the buses arriving at Newhall Elementary. 

Jhadel Chongco was at work when he was notified of the fire and evacuation of McGrath Elementary School. 

“My wife was calling me, telling me my kids were evacuating,” he said. “My boss told me, ‘What are you still doing here? You should go.’”

As Chongco headed to get his children, he worried about the safety of his home, which is not too far from McGrath and the fire. “I was really, really worried.” 

A parent embraces her daughter as she picks her up from Newhall Elementary School after the evacuation of McGrath Elementary School due to the nearby Jake Fire on Wednesday afternoon. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

“But now, I’m really good because I saw my kids (through the school’s window),” he said as he waited in the playground of Newhall Elementary for them to be released. 

Though notified by the school, many were still frustrated that they hadn’t heard of the fire and evacuations sooner.

Candace Tillis’ sister lives down the street from where the fire broke out. 

“She told me about it five minutes after it happened,” Tillis said, adding that her 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter were at nearby McGrath. “The school didn’t even contact us for like an hour — I was already on my way.” 

By the time she received a notification, she had seen posts about the fire all over social media. 

“I actually called the district because I wasn’t getting a phone call … and couldn’t get any information at all,” added Lupe Ortega, another McGrath parent. “It had been almost two hours with no communication and not knowing what to do. It was very frustrating. Not being able to get ahold of them I think was the hardest part.”

Like any emergency situation, a scene can quickly turn chaotic, but Pelzel said, “All in all, everyone responded greatly with faculty, kitchen aides, sheriffs and fire. Everyone was helping out.” 

The superintendent added that district officials will meet with Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station officials early next week to review their emergency response and learn where improvements can be made.  

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