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Image: Teacher Sheri Wallace
Deborah Cannon  /  AP
Mina Elementary School third-grade teacher, Sheri Wallace, talks to her class in Bastrop, Texas on Monday, Sept. 12. Paying attention in class may never have been so hard for children who started school Monday after the most-destructive wildfire in Texas history left hundreds of their families homeless and many with little more than the clothes on their backs.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/12/2011 7:37:49 PM ET 2011-09-12T23:37:49

Paying attention in class may never have been so hard for children who started school Monday after the most-destructive wildfire in Texas history left hundreds of their families homeless and many with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Fed by howling winds whipped up by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, flames streaked across drought-stricken Texas, where more than 190 fires statewide have killed four people. The worst damage was in Bastrop, where two smaller fires joined to form a monster blaze that has destroyed more than 1,550 homes and charred more than 34,000 acres.

With firefighters still trying to contain the wildfire and power and water cut off to some areas, many in the Bastrop remain under evacuation orders. School buses stopped Monday at hotels including the Super8, Best Western and Holiday Inn Express to pick up students. Desk clerks said most of the people in the hotels were people displaced by the fires.

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The school district provided breakfast and lunch for all students since many families don't have access to kitchens to pack lunches or make meals, spokesman Donald Williams said. Counselors from across Bastrop, with its charming downtown of quaint, colonial-style streets and shops, as well as health professionals from nearby school districts were called in to help school counselors.

Seven students at Mina Elementary School and four employees have lost their homes so far, principal Martha Werner said. The number could rise as 1,350 firefighters from Texas and around the country get the fire under control and begin assessing damage to individual properties.

Still, only 24 of the schools' 435 kindergarten through fourth-grade students failed to show for the first day of classes. The tally includes not only students left homeless or forced to move-in with relatives in other communities, but some who fell ill with smoke inhalation or other fire-related problems.

Story: String of blazes takes toll on Texas fire crews

Only 6 percent of students were absent district-wide, spokesman Donald Williams said.

"Today has really been a smooth day," Werner said. "A lot of smiles from the kids. It looked from afar mostly like a normal day, except for a few more hugs and a little extra loving and attention."

She added, "I want our school to be a safe place and a happy place because their home life can difficult for some right now."

Slideshow: Wildfires scorch Texas (on this page)

Teachers read an announcement about the fire, and students were encouraged to share their stories. Older children wrote in journals about their experiences, while some of the younger ones drew pictures.

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"Some won't speak but they'll draw you a picture and you'll know what's on their mind," Werner said. "Some of them wanted to know 'Is the fire still out there, is it going to get us?'"

The lobby of the Bastrop Independent School District headquarters was piled high with donated backpacks, pencils, notebooks and binders. Supplies had already been distributed to many children in need, and across the city so many residents have donated food, clothing and furniture that many aid centers said they simply didn't have the space to take more.

Rocky Hernandez took the day off of work from his job with the City of Austin to make sure his 11-year-old got off to school on time. The fire spared their home, even as it devoured most of a nearby state park, because winds pushed the flames in another direction.

"Everybody's still hyped up," Hernandez said. "I don't know how they're supposed to be thinking, be learning anything. It doesn't seem like a couple of days is enough."

But Werner thought the start of classes would help because children "thrive on structure and routine."

"I think teachers are very understanding that some students won't have their full attention," she said. "At some point, we've just got to jump back in and establish a new 'normal' — whatever that's going to be for us."

The root problem is a year-long drought. More than 80 percent of Texas is listed as experiencing "exceptional drought," the most severe category, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Drought Monitor.

Bill Paxton, of the Texas Forest Service, said the grass was already dead and trees were dying, describing the moisture content of Texas grass Sunday at what he called an "unheard of" 2 percent.

"We have another day or so to get a handle on these fires, because on Tuesday we're expecting the winds to pick up," he said. "What we really need is rain. But right now, there is no relief in sight."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Texas wildfires continue to blaze

Photos: Wildfires scorch Texas

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  1. Courtney Hughes sits in the car as her family decides where to spend the night as residents along Kickapoo Road evacuate Waller County, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fairchild, Texas, volunteer firefighter Dale Oberhoff gives his wife, Jackie, a kiss on the still smoldering ground after battling a grass fire near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A panoramic view taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station shows wildfires burning in Texas on Wednesday. (Nasa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighters put out hot spots at a grass fire off Foster School Road near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. People walk near a vehicle at an intersection in the fire-ravaged area of Bastrop, Texas, on Wednesday. (William Luther / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Montgomery, Texas, firefighter Reed Griffith crosses flames south of Todd Mission, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle via P) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial view shows burned houses and trees Sept. 7, east of Bastrop, Texas. Several large wildfires have been devastating Bastrop County for the past three days, but are now 30 percent contained, according to the Texas Forest Service. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gaye Jaco (back to camera) hugs stepdaughter Jennifer Leaver upon returning to their burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Tuesday, Sept. 6, outside Bastrop, Texas. Large large wildfires have been burning through Bastrop County for the past two days, and two people were reported dead Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A burned-out house and cars are seen Sept. 6 near Magnolia. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in wildfires across rain-starved Texas, most of them in one devastating blaze near Austin that was still raging out of control. (Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronical via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A statue of a woman holding a water bucket stands in front of the remnants of a burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Deborah Torkelson consoles her husband, Nathan, as they stand atop their destroyed home on Cardinal Loop in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A firefighting helicopter loads up with water from a pond at the Lost Pines Golf Club as they fight a fire in Bastrop State Park on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ed Leighton looks through a box of papers Sept. 6 in what remains of his home that burned to the ground on Bluejay Road in Bastrop, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Parts of a car melted in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Smoke from a wildfire hangs in the sky over Bastrop Sept. 6. Officials hoped that calmer winds would help firefighters battling wildfires that had destroyed about 1,000 homes in Texas and forced thousands of residents to flee. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Massive plumes of smoke block the sky on Highway 71 east of Bastrop on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Chuck Tomlin uses a shovel to stop a fire in the back yard of a home in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5. Tomlin volunteered to knock down flames that were just a few feet from the house of a neighbor he had never met.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Ryan Joseph Terranova packs up his belongings moments before evacuating his home at the Tahitian Village Apartments in Bastrop as a huge fire approaches on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A plane drops fire retardant on a house in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Yolanda Rodriguez, left, comforts neighbor Virginia Esquivel in front of Esquivel's gutted home on Bois D'Arc Lane in Cedar Park on Sept. 4. Two homes on the block were destroyed, and a third was damaged.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Firefighters battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville on Sept. 5. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (Erich Schlegel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The chimney of a house remains standing as the rest of the building burns to the ground near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Students from a local 4-H group drop off bottled water for firefighters and displaced residents at Magnolia High School where residents evacuated from their homes near a 300-acre wildfire gathered on Sept. 5. Nearly 8,000 residents in the Magnolia area were evacuated from their homes. (Eric S. Swist / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Clarence Hoffman, left, and his son, Allen Hoffman, battle ground flames as they try to prevent the fire from advancing to the home of Patrick McAlister near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. J Cindy Cruz wipes tears from her eyes as Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with her at Bastrop Middle School in Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Alberto Martìnez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Residents evacuate their animals as a wildfire threatens the area near Sleepy Hollow Road and Post Oak Drive in Conroe, Texas, on Sept. 5. (Karl Anderson / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A wildfire burns out of control in Bastrop State Park near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A large plume of smoke rises from a wildfire as onlookers watch from a hill on Sept. 5, in Bastrop. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Particia Bloodworth-Neville and her daughter Bailey Neville, 12, watch from Bluebonnet Volunteer Fire Station as a wildfire consumes land around their central Texas home on Sept. 5 in Bastrop. (Trent Lesikar / The Daily Texan via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Lone Camp Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Joe Crawford fights a wildfire on Sept. 1 in Graford, Texas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mike Hester holds a cat he rescued from an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. An air tanker drops fire retardant on a hot spot at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31 after a wildfire swept through the area. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer looks over an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, on Wednesday, Aug. 31. The wildfire swept through the neighborhood Tuesday, Aug. 30, destroying 25 homes and turning the normally lush landscape into a blackened mess. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Eric Kemper holds a cup which reads 'It's a girl' as he looks through the debris of his home after it was destroyed by fire as wildfires burn out of control near Bastrop, Texas September 6, 2011. Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and forced thousands of evacuations in the past several days, officials said. The worst of the fires, the Bastrop County Complex fire located about 30 miles/48 km southeast of Austin in the central part of the state, has destroyed up to 600 homes, the most of any single fire in Texas history. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER) (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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