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Teacher of the Year Loses Home in San Diego Fires

A high school teacher returned to class just hours after learning everything she owned was lost in San Diego's May firestorm.

A high school teacher who lost her home in the San Diego May Firestorm returned to class just hours after learning everything she owned was gone.

Kim Plunkett, head of Vista High School’s culinary arts program, broke down only once in front of students the day after losing her Carlsbad home to fire.

After composing herself, she told her students, “The best thing we need to do is we need to clean the kitchen. It's therapeutic. So follow me, we're all going to clean."

Plunkett teaches about 100 students the difference between dicing and chopping, between broiling and baking, in the restaurant-sized kitchen on the high school campus.

She was in the kitchen with her students the day her life changed. On May 14, the Poinsettia Fire consumed her home at the Windsor Aviara in Carlsbad.

As she focused on her students, she didn’t believe her home could have burned until she saw it on television.

"You go through denial," she said.

After Plunkett got a text from her stepdaughter, she went to a friend's home, and there, she saw the devastation for herself.

“We went in, sat on the couch and stared at the TV for four hours — saying they're pouring water on our apartment,” she recalled.

Piecing Life Back Together

Despite everything she’s been through, Plunkett can smile again because of the support she is getting from her colleagues and students, past and present.

“Within two hours I had texts coming in,” Plunkett said.

Several started the conversation with "Remember me?" and then immediately asked "How are you?"

It hasn't been easy piecing life back together.

On the day of the fires, she had only her car, her cell phone and the clothes on her back.

Later that week, firefighters recovered a few priceless mementos — a cherry and mahogany jewelry box made by her stepfather and some family photos. They also found a bicycle, a case of paper towels and a box of paper supplies in her garage.

With prom just around the corner, Plunkett said they were fortunate that her stepdaughter’s prom dress was at the dry cleaners getting hemmed, and not inside the home.

Grateful Students Pitch In

Students and teachers have been donating cash and gift cards to get the family back on their feet.

Senior Benji Velasco said it’s the least they can do.

“It's been really hard on her, and we're going to help and do everything we can to help her raise money so she can get another home,” Velasco said.

Plunkett was thrilled to receive a care package for her stepdaughter with shampoo and other toiletries.

“She's a very caring person. She's like a mom, kind of role model to me,” said senior Tania Villicana.

"We really are a family," Plunkett agreed.

Colleagues Pay Tribute to Her Teaching

Plunkett has devoted two years to building the school’s culinary program and was recognized for her work just 12 days before the fire.

She was named Vista High School’s Teacher of the Year, and the Vista City Council designated a day in her honor for the work that she’s doing at the high school.

For the teacher who spends countless hours prepping a kitchen, laundering chef coats and a fine tuning a lesson plan, Plunkett said she's amazed at how many people have offered to help her, including people she doesn't even know.

"There's so many, I can't write enough thank-you notes," she said. "I really appreciate it, because it's hard to be on the receiving side. It's easy to give, but it's hard — because I think I can handle it by myself, but I can't."

— R. Stickney and Nicole Gomez, NBC San Diego