Westmont Magazine In the Midst of the Fiery Inferno
Firefighters douse flames at the site of the physics building.
The sharp smell of smoke arrived ahead of the fire. Students began to notice it after 5:45 p.m. Nov. 13. Within minutes, flames appeared at the Tea Gardens, the abandoned arches on a hillside above campus. The night before, a group of City College students had built a bonfire there. They thought they put it out, but fierce winds the next afternoon fanned the embers into an inferno.
When students saw the fire, they knew what to do: go to the gym. “In the back of my mind, I recalled the many moments when we saw ‘In case of wildfire’ slides displayed in chapel,” William Hochberger says. He left Armington to walk to the gym when he was ordered to evacuate. “By the time we reached the observatory, we were in a sea of people frantically attempting to get to the safety of Murchison. I turned to gaze at the fire, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It had easily tripled in the time it had taken me to get that far, and it seemed to be spreading at an exponential rate.”
“It was about 5:50 p.m., and I heard someone say, ‘There’s a fire on the hill,’” Elise Alderson says. “I looked up and saw a cloud of smoke. There was a huge gust of wind, and that cloud became large flames within seconds. It looked like the wind was blowing the fire toward Page Hall. I pulled the Page fire alarm to alert the people in the building and headed toward the gym.”
Danielle Willard got to Murchison at 6:07 p.m. “Thankfully, I went to the wildfire drill last year, so I was able to reassure the girls that the gym was safe and give them reasons why we should be there and not trying to get all 800 or more of us down the mountain,” she says.
Chris Call, vice president for administra-tion, was getting into his car to go home when he noticed the fire. He headed back up to his office to collect his laptop before reporting to the Emergency Operation Center (EOC), where he served as the incident commander. “I asked the students walking toward me if they were heading to the gym and they told me they were,” he says. “They seemed to be in good spirits.”
About 140 prospective students arrived on campus Nov. 13 for Preview Days to attend classes and stay overnight in the residence halls. They too evacuated to the gym and unexpectedly witnessed how Westmont handles a crisis. “Preview Day families were impressed,” says Jessica Caswell, a member of the admissions staff. “They were telling us Westmont was quickly becoming their first choice, and they only felt safety and God’s comfort. They got to experience Westmont at its finest hour. I have never been more proud to be part of this amazing community.”
Troy Harris, director of risk manage-ment, developed the wildfire plan in 2003 and organized several drills for students and staff to prepare for a crisis. At the request of fire officials, the plan included sheltering students and neighbors in the gym, a fire-proof structure, rather than evacuating 1,200 students over narrow Montecito roads. A quickly moving fire poses a serious danger to motorists stuck in traffic. More than 10 agencies involved in emergency response knew about and supported this approach, and many participated in Westmont’s drills. Although the Tea Fire came close to the gym, students and neighbors were safe inside, and the plan worked as expected. Fire officials later said the shelter saved lives.
The fire ravaged a small area north of Kerwood Lawn
“I could tell how prepared Westmont was by the speed and precision at which the evacuation and subsequent management in the gym occurred,” Hochberger says.
“I really had no idea the school was going to be as prepared for this as it was,” Breanna Hadidian says. “Within minutes the medical supplies and materials appeared from nowhere, which made me feel more safe and more in danger at the same time.”
Daniel Clapp, resident director at Emerson, managed the shelter and made sure it was organized quickly. He assigned each residence hall an area in the gym and set up locations for faculty, staff and neighbors. One of the first tasks was retrieving water and blankets from storage. Students supplemented these supplies with DVDs, and two were shown during the evening.
President Gayle D. Beebe was driving to the Los Angeles area to meet with three trustees when he heard about the fire. He turned around at once, and fire officials escorted him to campus, where he remained throughout the night, monitoring the EOC and making periodic announcements to students in the gym. His presence comforted them, and they appreciated his information about the condition of buildings on campus.
Tom Beveridge, director of physical plant, was working in his office when Public Safety Officer Karen Huggins told him about the fire. “I immediately called our public safety staff, the director, Tom Bauer, and Dave Rubio, who is also a Montecito fireman,” he says. “I also asked Hugo Franco, our trades manager, to get his staff here.”
They made their way to campus quickly. “There was fire everywhere at 6:30 p.m.,” Franco says. Ray Gonzales and Aleksandr Vertsekha began to hook up the generator to the gym; when the campus lost power at 7:12 p.m., it was ready to go, and the students suffered only a momentary blackout. Beveridge, Ariel Palomares and Viktor Markov grabbed hoses and fire extinguishers and began attacking the flames in strategic spots: the generator, the parking lot west of the gym and the prayer chapel. Their actions saved these areas and many vehicles.
“The wind was so strong, you had to turn your face,” Markov says. “I am really proud of my guys,” Franco says, “They are heroes.”
Bauer, in full fire gear, began patrolling campus and reporting on the destruction. Firefighters were busy evacuating the neigh-borhood and couldn’t get to Westmont in time to save Bauder Hall, the physics building, the Quonset huts and the old math building. But strike teams from Los Angeles kept the losses in Clark to just three structures.
Nearby in Las Barrancas, where the college built 41 homes for faculty and their families, the fire was spreading rapidly. By the end of the night, 14 homes had been destroyed. Residents who saw the quickly moving blaze had little time to grab possessions and flee. Chris Hoeckley, who lost his home, was one of the people knocking on doors to warn of the danger. Some professors spent the night in the gym with the students; others evacuated to family and friends in the area. Paul and Sharon Willis helped at the shelter; she is a nurse at the Health Center and provided medical care while Paul watched the dogs that arrived.
Inside Murchison, students could only imagine the scene outside. “Great prayer circles began to form throughout the gym,” Kylie Culver says. “I found myself putting my hands on the shoulders of people I had never met. The evening was heart-wrenching, but knowing God was in control was comforting. It has been exciting to see God’s hand through this all. I am so thankful to be a part of such a wonderful community.”
“The night spent in the gym was one of the most unforgettable events of my life,” Ravyn Cervantes says. “It was amazing and confounding to witness the juxtaposition of people’s persistently chipper attitudes contrasted with the steady, ominous, rising smoke inside the building. It was so comforting to be among friends and to know we were all experiencing this unbeliev-able event together.”
“It was a rough night, but it was drenched in hope and prayerful attitudes,” Andrea Anderson says.
Tim Dwyer passed the time by documenting events. “Kids are all over the place, sitting here and laying there, all with a strange sense of intrigue and concern on their faces,” he wrote. “Not many people are panicking, and I’ve only witnessed a few crying.” Later he noted, “Now people are bringing out instruments; guitars twang, drums resonate and the sound of violins, which began this musical surge, strangely reminds me of the violinists who played ever so calmly on the deck of the Titanic.”
Only one section of Bauder Hall remained standing
“Sixteen or so smoky hours in the gym gave me and my classmates the opportunity to decide whether we would embrace God and each other or get angry; whether we would rejoice in God or sheer luck,” Austin Crowder says. “I thought my stuff was gone at times, and I had to decide to embrace the simple life and life of faith in all situations. Individual growth, growth together as community, and a time of deep connection with God as my caregiver all occurred during the fire.”
A classroom next to the gym became the EOC, and the Situation Readiness and Response Team (SRT) met there throughout the night. John Rodkey served as the representative from Information Technology. Until the campus lost power, he put updates on the Westmont Web site using his laptop. But after 7 p.m., he had to go to his office in the library to get access to the server. “We needed to maintain communication with the outside world and get the message out that people were safe,” he says. “We didn’t want a vacuum of information to cause panic.” He made five trips to his office as the fire burned trees on both sides of the road and smoke obscured his vision. On one foray, he gathered all the fire extinguishers in the library and took them back to the physical plant staff protecting the campus. “The wind was really ferocious,” he says. “It was probably 40-50 m.p.h., and the embers were flying horizontally.”
The SRT also provided updates to an emergency phone line that received thousands of calls that night. In the days that followed, the Web site became the primary source of news, and the college used the phone line, conference calls with parents, a phone bank and mass e-mail messages to keep everyone informed.
The wind began to die down between 9:30-10 p.m. and quit completely around midnight. The firestorm subsided and never threatened campus again, although spot fires smoldered for days. When conditions improved, physical plant staff raided the dining commons and took food to the students. Choir members had been rehearsing when the blaze started and hadn’t eaten dinner, so they were especially grateful.
Since the danger had lessened, the SRT began to let students leave campus. Those who had cars close by and a place to go were the first to leave. Reality Church in Carpinteria sent a bus and picked up 100 students. “Their kindness shocked me,” Hadidian says. “Not only did they open their doors to us, but they had a full coffee bar prepared, Red Cross toiletry kits, cots, sleeping bags, blankets, and fresh, clean Reality T-shirts to hand out.”
As he left, Hochberger felt unsettled. “The road blocks, police directing traffic and smoke rising in the distance marked our descent,” he says. “I had no idea where half of my friends were or when I would see them again, but I trusted that God would bring us all back together when it was safe.”
Stephanie Strasner lives off campus. “When the fire started, my phone began to ring,” she says. “Coaches were calling to check on players and teammates were trying to figure out if everyone was safe. There were calls and text messages between parents, off-campus students and students safely held in the gym. We were more scared than they were — they assured us they were safe, everything was well organized and they had plenty of water.
“Around 14 people slept at my house and many more came in and out throughout the weekend. At one point, I had no idea what their names were, but I knew they were Westmont students who had evacuated campus, and that was enough information.”
“I don’t think my phone has ever worked that hard,” says Kelsey Quinlan, another off-campus student. “Throughout the rest of that sleepless night we heard every imaginable rumor: Westmont was fine, Westmont was completely gone, and everything in between. By morning, though, it became certain what buildings were fallen and what were still standing. It was emotional, exhausting and terrifying — and a huge reminder of what is important. Every single person is safe and cared for. Our community is hurting, but we will be stronger for this.”
By 2p.m. on Friday, all students had left the gym and found a place to stay. More than 400 people in Santa Barbara were willing to open their homes to students and staff displaced by the fire. “We’re so grateful for the many offers of assistance that poured in after the fire,” Beebe says. “It’s been so encouraging to receive ongoing support from the community.”
Clark F, the home of Resident Director Mark McCormick, was completely destroyed.
In the light of day, officials surveyed the damage to the grounds. While the campus lost trees and landscaped areas, the formal gardens below Kerrwood Hall were largely spared, as was the grove of Italian stone pines near the dining commons. The fire followed the barrancas, doing the most harm there, especially west of Page Hall and down through the center of campus to the prayer chapel.
The media showed up as soon as the fire began, and a helicopter from a Los Angeles television station hovered over Montecito, broadcasting images of burning buildings. Media crews began filming the destruction on the ground as soon as the sun rose, and they covered Westmont’s fire story for the next few weeks. Accounts appeared in the New York Times, on CNN and Fox News and on many television and radio stations across the country.
President Beebe met with his executive team Nov. 14 and throughout the weekend to begin the recovery. They faced many questions: How soon can classes restart? When will power, water and gas be restored? What will it take to make the campus safe for students, faculty and staff? How quickly can crews clean up debris and remove smoke and ash from surviving buildings? An evacuation order for the campus remained in effect until the evening of Nov. 16, which complicated matters.
The Westmont community gathered for the first time since the fire the morning of Nov. 17, when hundreds of students, faculty and staff met at Calvary Chapel for a worship service. Campus Pastor Ben Patterson and President Beebe spoke.
By Nov. 17 it became obvious the college could not reopen for at least a week. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Beebe decided to close the campus until Dec. 1; by that time it would be clean and safe for classes to resume. Students were allowed to return for half an hour Nov. 18 or 19 to collect clothing and class materials. Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort generously offered the use of a ballroom during the day, where students could meet their friends, share fire stories and enjoy some food.
The men’s soccer team had been scheduled to host a play-off game against No. 5 Azusa Pacific Nov. 15 to determine the winner of the Golden State Athletic Conference. The fire forced the cancellation of this match, and Coach Dave Wolf, his wife and their five children lost their home in the fire as did one of his athletes. Westmont would have had to forfeit, but Azusa Pacific’s coach, who is Wolf’s brother, asked that the game be rescheduled on their campus. The Warriors arrived in Azusa Nov. 17 smoky but determined to overcome the disaster. Hundreds of students traveled from their homes throughout Southern California to support their team. In a storybook ending, beautifully told by Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, the Warriors won the championship 2-0. They defeated two more teams to reach the quarterfinals of the NAIA National Tournament, where they lost 1-0. UC Santa Barbara offered the Warriors free use of Harder Stadium for one of these games, and thousands of Santa Barbara fans attended the match.
Staff returned to work Nov. 18, although the campus remained closed to students and visitors until Nov. 29. Public safety officers diligently guarded the entrances and made sure all the buildings were secure.
One of the staff’s primary concerns was supporting the 62 students who lost rooms in the fire: 27 women and 13 men in Clark, 10 students in Page and 12 living off campus. The student life office appointed an advocate for each damaged room to assist students and their families in dealing with insurance issues, replacing lost items and completing class work.
The trustees also named advocates for the 15 faculty families left homeless in the wake of the fire to make sure they received advice, support and assistance.
Alumni, parents and friends — and people unfamiliar with the college but touched by its plight — contributed to the Wildfire Relief Fund or offered clothing, household goods or gift cards. The fund will cover uninsured losses suffered by the college, faculty, staff and students.
Santa Barbara Bank & Trust donated food and housing for faculty and students who evacuated and handed out gift bags to every student after chapel Dec. 1. Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort provided meeting space while the campus remained under an evacuation order. The 27 students from Clark M stayed at Coast Village Inn from Dec. 1-19. Sempra Energy Foundation gave Westmont a $20,000 grant for student wildfire relief, and the Stamps Foundation also supported recovery efforts.
Communicating with parents remained a priority in the days following the fire. President Beebe scheduled three conference calls to inform parents of the latest news and answer questions sent in by e-mail. Joe and Judy Rehfeld, co-chairs of the Parents Council, worked tirelessly to respond to concerns, answer e-mail messages and take phone calls. Although they live in Washington, they were visiting Santa Barbara when the fire erupted, and they prolonged their stay to assist the college. In addition, student life staff set up a phone bank for about a week to answer specific questions not covered by information on the Web site.
After two weeks of hard work, the campus was ready for students to return Nov. 29, and they began arriving that afternoon, with most coming the next day.
In chapel Dec. 1, the college celebrated a “Service of Hope and Renewal.” Invited guests included Montecito firefighters, trustees, parents and alumni who gathered to testify to the faithfulness of God. There were many poignant moments, and President Beebe’s praise for the firefighters received a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,000.
“What we accomplished was in large part because you were at our side, you were behind us, you followed our direction,” Division Chief Jim Langhorne said. “Without your planning, without your performance, we could not have answered the question why people didn’t perish. You sequestered at least 25-30 percent of the people in the path of the fire here. Without your help we dare say the outcome would have been different.”
Campus Pastor Ben Patterson spoke about hope. “Our faith isn’t an opiate,” he said. “It isn’t a designer drug that lifts us out of the mess of life. Our faith gives us courage to live in the mess.” President Beebe issued a call to the campus community to stand alongside the people who are suffering.
Following the service, the crowd flowed from Murchison Gym to the lawn in front of the Voskuyl Prayer Chapel, which survived the fire even though trees burned all around it, to sing the college hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
The Tea Fire has left its mark on campus, but time will repair the damage. Renovation has already begun on Clark M and S; Clark F, the home of the resident director, must be entirely reconstructed. Built in 1965, Clark has 17 separate buildings and is home to first-year and transfer students.
Bauder Hall was the carriage house for an estate the college purchased in the 1940s. The main house, used as a residence hall for men, burned during the Coyote Fire. Bauder was noted for its Tudor style and whimsical weather vane. It housed the psychology faculty and a classroom.
The physics building dates back to the Dwight Murphy estate Westmont acquired in 1945. Archival photos document its use as a garage. The old math building was another original structure that served many purposes over the years. It was mostly empty at the time of the fire awaiting demolition.
After World War II, Westmont bought a number of Quonset huts for temporary student housing. Two of them remained on campus and were burned; they were also scheduled to be torn down. One served as the sculpture classroom for the art department.
“God truly protected our campus as most of the burn lines seemed to suddenly stop at the base of dozens of important buildings and landmarks,” Hochberger says. “God provided for us and protected us through it all. When we were hungry, he brought us food, when we were broken and overcome with fire, he comforted us, when we were thirsty, he brought us water, when we were cold he brought us blankets and beds; when we needed him most, he was there. With joy and peace, I proclaimed, ‘Great is thy faithfulness!’”