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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 8:30 pm | Fair 44º

 
 
 
 

Westmont College Serves as Thomas Fire Headquarters; Campus Evacuated

Campus was evacuated and all activities shut down as flames move west toward Montecito

Westmont College students pray inside the campus’s gym on Sunday after students, faculty, and staff were instructed to evacuate to the school. Westmont remains under mandatory evacuation, and the campus is closed with all services discontinued. Click to view larger
Westmont College students pray inside the campus’s gym on Sunday after students, faculty, and staff were instructed to evacuate to the school. Westmont remains under mandatory evacuation, and the campus is closed with all services discontinued. (Edee Schulze photo)

A new Thomas Fire headquarters has been established at Westmont College in Santa Barbara this week to accommodate the increased resources and personnel near Santa Barbara County communities.

Some 500 firefighters and 100 engines are housed at the campus as crews tackle the fire moving farther west, toward Montecito and Santa Barbara, according to Westmont spokesman Scott Craig.

Craig said water-dropping helicopters battling the blaze from the air can use the campuses’ Lovik Field to refill.

The Thomas Fire, currently the fifth-largest wildfire in state history, had scorched 236,000 acres as of Tuesday night

Thousands of people have been evacuated, including residents in the Carpinteria Valley, Montecito and eastern Santa Barbara.

On Sunday morning, about 250 Westmont students, faculty, and staff were instructed to voluntarily evacuate the campus as the blaze encroached upon Santa Barbara County.

The group met inside the concrete gym on campus, and students were immediately shuttled to Santa Barbara Community Church, with some bussed out of town, going to their own homes or to those of faculty and staff.

About an hour after everyone was safely transported off of the campus, Westmont and the surrounding area was under mandatory evacuation.

As of Tuesday, Westmont remained under mandatory evacuation, and the campus is closed with all services discontinued.

“It all went very smoothly,” Edee Schulze, the college’s vice president of student life, said about the evacuation. “The students were cooperative and had a great attitudes. We were able to get the students off campus safely.” 

Westmont College, as well as UC Santa Barbara, has canceled classes for the week and final exams will not take place on campus.

A new fire headquarters for the Thomas fire has been established at Westmont College in Santa Barbara to accommodate the increased personal and resources near Santa Barbara County communities. Click to view larger
A new fire headquarters for the Thomas fire has been established at Westmont College in Santa Barbara to accommodate the increased personal and resources near Santa Barbara County communities. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

College officials instructed faculty to generate alternate plans and notify their students.

In the past, Westmont has served as a headquarters for fire officials during other fires, and the Thomas Fire isn't the first time a wildfire has threatened the campus.

In 2008, the college was heavily damaged during the destructive Tea Fire.

“You felt like you were in the apocalypse,” Westmont College President Gayle Beebe said. “It (the Tea Fire) was on campus, and it was engulfing our campus within 15 minutes. The night of the Tea Fire, we had reports that winds had clocked to 70 mph.”

The Tea Fire destroyed 210 homes in the immediate community, as well as eight Westmont buildings and 15 faculty homes, displacing 62 students, 18 faculty and nine staff members, according to the college’s spokesperson.

A group of volunteers called the “Westmont Fire Brigade” was created following the Tea Fire.

The members have remained on campus in case the Thomas Fire reaches the college. 

“Westmont Fire Brigade” members — who typically work at the Westmont Physical Plant — will not be involved in battling structure fires, but may be activated to extinguish spot fires on campus if needed.

“They have completed national wildland firefighter training, which included classroom instruction in fire behavior, fire suppression, risk management and preparedness,” Craig said. “They also have conducted field exercises, such as using firefighting hand tools, fire containment line construction, and fire hose deployments.”

 Less than three months after the Tea Fire, Westmont purchased a 350-gallon, water-pumper truck. The college also acquired a 2,000-gallon pumper truck. 

Firefighters used the trucks during the 2015 Gibraltar Fire to refill helicopters with water on Lovik Field.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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