Marc Kessler, a science teacher at Paradise Intermediate School, was driving to work on the morning of Nov. 8 when he saw a puff of smoke in the distance. He didn’t think much of it. As a longtime Californian, he was used to such sights from time to time.

Kessler got to school and started setting up his classroom for the day’s lesson—the metric system. Quickly, however, things took a dark turn.

“The sky started turning black,” he would later recall. “Black soot. It was like black snow covering all the sidewalks.”

That puff of smoke he saw was the Camp Fire, which was rapidly approaching his campus. Kessler, 55, and his fellow teachers and administrators sprang into action. They got the students into the gym and started calling their parents to come pick up the kids. Despite the chaotic conditions—it was so dark Kessler couldn’t see without a flashlight—the school district staff worked together seamlessly. The smoke might have been thick, but they were up to the task.

In roughly an hour, about three-quarters of the students were with their parents. Another 50 or so remained on school grounds. Then propane tanks began exploding from the heat. A sheriff’s deputy arrived, telling everyone to evacuate immediately. Kessler led three boys to his car, and they drove off through the darkness.

Soon after, the remaining teachers shepherded students into a couple of waiting buses. “I don’t know if the bus drivers took it upon themselves or if they were asked to come by, but it was pretty awesome. They have family up there—and homes—and they chose to come to the school and take those kids down,” Kessler told the Associated Press.

Kessler took Neal Road out of the city, encouraging the terrified boys to focus on the car’s navigation system. “I wanted to keep them occupied because they were pretty scared,” he says. “It was, ‘Look at the screen and don’t look outside.’”

What should have been a 20-minute drive took them two hours. The smoke was so thick that Kessler could barely see the trees on either side of the road. They finally reached Chico, where the boys were eventually reunited with their families. All told, the school district staff got all 125 students back to their parents and guardians.

Paradise Intermediate School, however, was destroyed.

Following the fire, the teachers and administrators made it a priority to get the students back into a school environment. “We had to create a whole new school district in a short period of time,” Kessler says. As part of the process, they called every parent to determine where they and their children were, if they were planning to return to school or whether they had been displaced farther away, and how the district could help. In December, the district created an e-learning and field trip space in a shopping mall storefront that catered to between 30 and 40 students a day.

In January, the school moved to an old hardware store. The furnishings are sparse—Kessler says the space echoes and the students are using the empty shelves of the store as desks—but the effort shows the resilience and creativity of the teachers and the community.

On his first day back in front of his class, Kessler wanted to complete the metric system lesson that he had planned for the day the Camp Fire interrupted them. “It was really important psychologically to teach that lesson the first day,” he says. “That’s where I stopped and that’s where I wanted to start again.” He didn’t have any meter sticks or beakers, so he improvised, using plastic strips from the shelves to make meter sticks.

In Paradise, he’s glad to report, it’s back to teaching and learning.