Westmont Magazine Faithfulness in the Midst of Fires
Learning from the past helped Westmont be well prepared for the Tea Fire. Three earlier blazes threatened the campus, and two did serious damage. A common theme runs through all four fire stories: each one could have been much more destructive. Thanks to God’s mercy and the faithful prayers of his people, the college has survived these disasters and even grown stronger.
On Sept. 22, 1964, the Coyote Fire began in a canyon close to Westmont. Unpredictable winds kept it raging for three days, consuming 75,000 acres and over 100 homes.
The 1,800 firefighters set up their major camp on the campus athletic field, but the blaze was so widespread that Westmont students and staff, like many homeowners, had to do much of the firefighting themselves.
Many stories of God’s protection emerged from the crisis. At one point, 100-foot winds leapt down the mountainside toward Page Hall, only to suddenly change direction and race down a nearby ravine.
Down by Deane Hall, an ember landed in the top of a pine tree, beyond the reach of hose or hatchet. Helplessly, students watched and prayed, knowing it could ignite nearby buildings. At that moment, a fire truck arrived, and the crew quickly cut down the tree and put out the fire. Ironically, they appeared only because they had lost their way trying to find the fire camp.
When the fire finally died out, Westmont was a “green oasis amidst a sea of grey ash.” Miraculously, only Catherwood, a residence hall for men, had burned. This former estate stood on the site of what is now the president’s house. The carriage house, Bauder Hall, survived that blaze only to perish in the Tea Fire.
President Roger Voskuyl remembered those days, “Yes, we knew concern, but never a time of hopelessness. Always we experienced a steadfastness of heart, because we knew that no matter what, God could work together all things for good.”
In an interesting parallel to the Tea Fire, Westmont students were wrongfully accused by a local radio station of looting Kerrwood Hall on the morning of March 17, 1970. In reality, the students were working feverishly to save as much of the contents of the building as possible while an electrical fire threatened to consume it. As firefighters struggled to extinguish the elusive flames that had been burning between the walls, floors and ceilings for hours, students and staff members raced to save transcripts, financial records, paintings and manuscripts.
The best known story of the fire concerns Robert Gundry’s completed manuscript for his book, “Survey of the New Testament.” “Students put up a ladder to my office to rescue my book,” he recalls. “They had to grope around the floor because the smoke was so thick. Amazingly, they found all the stacks and threw the papers out the window. I didn’t lose one page of the manuscript.”
Even though the building required significant structural repair, Kerrwood Hall survived.
Around 7 p.m. July 26, 1977, a 23-year-old carpenter and his girlfriend decided to fly his four-foot box kite near the intersection of Coyote Road and Mountain Drive. When the kite encountered power lines, the resulting blaze destroyed almost 200 homes, including those of several Westmont staff members.
The Sycamore Fire consumed 40 undeveloped acres belonging to the college — the site of Las Barrancas — and burned to the edge of the athletic field, but didn’t touch the campus. Firefighters set up a command post for the entire operation in the gym. Heroic actions by the Westmont community spared some homes and buildings, and students helped neighbors clean up afterwards.