Second-grader Emma Ax brightened Thursday when her teacher said it was time for recess. "Yes!" the 8-year-old whispered.
"We can't go out because it smells really bad out there," said her teacher at La Crescenta Elementary, just a few miles from the Station fire. Emma's face fell. "But we're not just going to sit here and look at each other -- we'll have fun."
From the look on her face, it seemed Emma didn't believe her.
The largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history broke out just as many area schools were about to open for the new school year, forcing administrators to cancel or modify athletic practice and keep children indoors because of poor air quality. Many districts pushed back the first day of classes -- Glendale Unified schools, including La Crescenta, were scheduled to open Monday but remained shuttered until Thursday.
"I've never seen anything like this," said James Stratton, superintendent of the La Canada Unified School District, which opened Wednesday after being closed for two days. The only other time Stratton could recall classes being canceled was for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.
Schools on traditional calendars in some of the area's largest districts, such as Los Angeles and Pasadena, are not yet in session.
The football team at St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge has been practicing since mid-August but spent most of the last week going through drills indoors, said head coach Jim Bonds.
The team spent more time than normal lifting weights and watching films and going through drills wearing helmets, shoulder pads and tennis shoes. Full-scale tackling was prohibited.
The team got outdoors Wednesday and has a scrimmage scheduled for today, Bonds said.
"We'll see what the air quality is like, but we're trying to make the best of it," he said.
Even though there was still some ash on the ground at La Crescenta Elementary and the air still smelled like smoke, many students said they were glad to be back in class and with their friends.
Still, when it was time for recess, most of the children seemed to want to go outside.
"It's when you get to have freedom," Emma explained. "And I want to play handball."
A few doors down in a fourth-grade classroom, students had separated mostly by gender and were reading books and playing games. Three gathered around a Scrabble board. One waited for a chance to spell "Mississippi," the longest word she knew, but they mostly had to settle for simpler ones: run, dog, eal.
The fish, explained 8-year-old Nareh Ohanian.
That's e-e-l, a visitor gently said.
Nareh stared at her letters for a moment. "Good, I have an 'e,' " she said, quickly replacing the "a."
By then, Emma was sitting at a table with some of her friends, putting together a Hello Kitty puzzle. She reported that recess hadn't been that bad. "I was sad at first," she said, "but I had fun."
Principal Kim Bishop said the students would remain indoors today. After that, she said she hoped the air clears over the long weekend so the campus can return to normal.
"Hopefully, by Tuesday it will all be OK," she said.