WILBUR, Wash. – Football players in white and red jerseys solemnly walked off the Almira school bus holding hands Thursday evening, just 48 hours after their school burned to the ground.
The football field in Wilbur, about 10 miles from Almira along U.S. Highway 2 west of Spokane, was decorated with posters made by students from the opposing team.
“Warrior strong,” one sign read.
Almost every resident from Wilbur to Coulee City spent time in the historic Almira school building that taught students through the eighth grade.
The school’s walls had been lined with memorabilia. There were class photos, awards and trophies.
On Tuesday night, Justin Manning, assistant football coach and facilities director at the school, arrived as firefighters worked to hold the flames in just one wing of the school.
With the permission of the fire crew, Manning and his wife ran inside the gym at the opposite side of the horseshoe-shaped building.
They grabbed whatever they could, a few photos and memorabilia but mainly football pads and helmets.
Little did they know, the gear would be the only surviving pieces of the school.
Eighth-grader Luke Geltz, 14, bounded across the field in a uniform borrowed from the high school. With watery eyes, he described his disbelief at learning his school was on fire.
“I was pretty shocked. I didn’t know what to believe at first,” Geltz said of the fire. “But then it hit me when I watched the news and I saw my math teacher’s room on fire, and I’m like, ‘I did my algebra test there yesterday.’ It was kind of surreal.”
The next thing Geltz and his teammates feared was losing their football season too. Then came the good news that much of their gear had survived.
The team didn’t even miss a practice, heading to Coulee City Wednesday afternoon for a workout.
“We still had that in our minds, but we’re still playing football,” Geltz said. “And we’re going to still keep on going.”
Parts of the school were still smoldering Thursday afternoon. Fire investigators have yet to enter the building due to safety concerns, said Denny Pinar, chief at Lincoln County Fire District 8.
Power in part of Almira was out the day of the fire, and a few houses lost appliances due to power surges, Pinar said. He suspects the fire may have been an electrical issue.
As flames shot skyward from the school building Tuesday evening, residents began to rally around each other even as they gathered in the school’s football field to watch the fire.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said April Dormire, who lives two houses down from the school. “My son is crying, I cry too, and most of the people … a lot of people came over and watched it.”
As community members realized their school was gone, they shifted into work mode, Principal Kelsey Hoppe said.
“It was just heartwarming that everybody came together and was willing to step up and do whatever we had to do,” Hoppe said.
Students will attend online classes next week, then return to in-person learning on Oct. 25, with elementary students split between the Almira Community Church and the Almira Community Center.
Middle schoolers will attend class at the high school in Coulee City.
The “long-term goal” is to rebuild with the help of the school’s insurance company, which has already been “great to work with,” Hoppe said.
With a plan in place for school going forward, the first middle school football game after the fire was a chance for “a little bit of normalcy,” Hoppe said.
“This is a beautiful day for playing football,” head coach Mana Victorino called out.
The Warriors arrived in Wilbur ready to play. They scored on their first drive, and by halftime the team was up 35-18, keeping the 40 or so community members on the sidelines in a good mood.
The middle school team ran away during the second half and won 61-18.
When the clock ran out, the team erupted into cheers and, after a few heartfelt handshakes, the line of boys ran toward the corner of the field.
They crashed into a circle on the ground screaming and hugging, then pounding.
“Go, Warriors,” they hollered.
Victorino came up behind them, joining their cheers.
“It’s great to get a win to end this crazy week,” he said.
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