Westmont Magazine Students on the Front Lines
Murchison Gym on Friday morning
God was with me that Thursday night
Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I babysit from 5-8 p.m. for a woman who lives on Mountain Drive above Page Hall. But Nov. 13, she called and said she didn’t need me until 6 p.m. I got there early, so I sat in her guest house overlooking all Santa Barbara. At exactly 5:53 p.m., I started to put my books into my backpack to walk to the main house when, for some reason, I looked backwards over my left shoulder only to see a huge mass of flames headed in my direction about 100 yards away.
I ran into the house and yelled to the woman, “There’s a fire! We have to get out of here!” She had no idea the hillside was ablaze as her house faced the opposite direction. I put the little girl in the car, and the woman was throwing stuff at me that she wanted to save. I yelled at her three times. “We have to get out now!” She tossed me the keys to the car, and she got in her truck. I had the little girl with me, who was screaming in the back seat as the flames started to tower over us and light up the sky. The driveway is narrow and steep, and it was tricky to back out and not go into the ravine with all the stuff piled high in the car. I saw her trees catch fire in my rear-view mirror as I drove away; her house was the first to burn in the Tea Fire.
The fire came with no warning. The woman and her daughter would have been in a great deal of trouble if I hadn’t seen it. We got out of there and everybody was safe only because God was watching over us and protecting us. Normally on Thursday at 6 p.m., I would be alone with the little girl, giving her a bath. I would not have seen the fire, and even if I did, I had no idea where the keys to her truck were. We would have been trapped. God was with me that Thursday night.
— Hillary Dunks
The loss of a refuge
Thursday night’s inferno raced down the foothills of Montecito and into the heart of Clark, relegating the top floor of M and most of S to a charred oblivion. My room on the lower floor of M suffered extensive water and smoke damage.
When I heard the order to evacuate to the gym, I was going to sax quartet rehearsal. The only things I saved were those I was carrying at the time: my precious alto sax and music, my cell phone, and the clothes on my back. My dear sister labeled me the “homeless musician.” But I’m not planning on panhandling on State Street; I work strictly with ensembles.
It’s a strange feeling to be homeless. Yes, I’m sad about losing things. But it’s a lesson in materialism long overdue. No matter how precious, none of the stuff in M102 was ever really mine — it’s God’s. Even the clothes on my back that I escaped with aren’t mine. They’re a gift, and they were given — and, by grace, taken away.
I didn’t have the searing loss of seeing everything I own reduced to charcoal. My heart and prayers go out to Mark the R.D. and the faculty members in Las Barrancas.
Far more striking than the loss of possessions, perhaps, is the loss of a refuge, a gathering place and a home. In the three short months that our section lived in M, I’ve found closer friends in many cases than I’d made in 13 years of public school. With a lovely living space, a beautiful view and dear friends living next door, M102 had truly become home.
As a first-year student, I find being off-campus in our temporary quarters a challenge at times, but it’s been an opportunity to stretch boundaries and grow. Our section is together and safe; we have the same roommates and, in most cases, the same neighbors, so it’s a similar sense of community. Even being displaced physically can’t displace our bond as a section; if anything, it has strengthened us as we draw closer together in the face of tragedy. I consider a lot of these girls as sisters and friends for life.
As Christians we can find a home anywhere because we carry the overwhelming, awesome, unceasing and unfailing love of Jesus Christ in our hearts. He is everywhere: in a car, at your R.A.’s aunt’s house, in a hut a thousand miles across the ocean, or on State playing smooth jazz for quarters. And that is a comforting thought.
— Stacey Torigoe
Officials prepare to get students off campus Friday
The attitude was calm yet solemn
The evacuation was well executed and professionally handled. One of the residents in my section knocked on my door at 6:05 p.m. I opened it and heard there was a fire and that we needed to evacuate. I grabbed a few of my things and walked outside to see a huge fire burning on the mountain. I ran through my section again, knocking on every door, letting my residents know we would need to leave immediately. Hoards of students were headed to the gym.
Throughout the night neighbors in the local area joined us. I had grabbed a list of my section and went immediately to where Armington was asked to gather. I spent about half an hour identifying all my residents, checking them off the list, and calling the two who were off campus — I told them not to come back.
I helped other R.A.s identify their residents and do head-counts. The rest of the evening I spent with students who needed consoling. Two counselors were present. Some residents needed more tending to than others. I made many rounds in the gym, offering bottled water, paper towels to cover their noses and mouths, and words of comfort. I told them the best thing they could do was to encourage those around them and pray.
The night was long. Two movies helped pass the time. During the middle of the second one, the entire gym became quiet for prayer initiated by a second-year student. Musicians played worship music to create a more relaxing mood. I was comforted to see the people I respected — faculty and staff members — working tirelessly for the protection and comfort of the community.
During the evacuation, I was not worried. I had many friends who gave me a lot of joy. I felt strangely at peace, knowing we would be OK. The overall attitude of the night was calm yet solemn. It was good to see Dr. Ficsor reading stories to Sammy, his son, whose firefighter toys were strewn on the floor. It was comforting to see Dr. Shasberger arrive the next morning with his daughter Sarah, ready to take people to their home in Goleta.
I remember again the line of a song we sing in chapel, “He gives and takes away. My heart will choose to say, blessed be Your name.” When those who have lost everything are my close friends, dearest professors and neighbors, I think the only thing we can do is bless His name.
— Trinity Ann Hokama
The only thing we could do was wait
As I was sitting in my room doing homework, I overheard, “How do you spell fire?” Someone replied, “F-I-R-E.” “No, do you smell fire?” The hall smelled faintly of smoke. Three of us rushed into the third-floor lounge of Armington B to see tall orange flames up above campus. Soon an R.A. forced us to evacuate. Without knowing much, I threw some homework into my backpack, grabbed water from our fridge and headed out.
At the gym, I found my section mates and made camp with them as we accounted for those missing. Little did I know it would be a long night! People flooded through the doors until it was crowded. As time went on, the gym grew smokier, cell phones died and rumors spread. Some calmly played cards as others watched movies with paper masks or clothing covering their mouths. The bathroom lines were as long as Disneyland ride lines but moved quickly. I went out to the bathroom once and saw the brush outside the gym flaming.
At one point Clark students began to stand, and the girls’ makeup ran as tears fell from news of certain buildings burning. I gave hugs to try to comfort them. But the only thing we could do was wait. I stayed as they let people in nearby parking lots leave, and Murchison Gym started to look like a pretty good hotel, equipped with cots, blankets and pillows thanks to the Red Cross. It grew less smoky. In the morning I called my parents to pick me up, and I found a friend who needed a place, so I took her with me to wait at my house for further instructions. I will remember that night forever.
— Laura Schelvis
Students leave Murchison Gym Friday morning
Only God can save the campus
Just a week ago I was complaining that I had lost my jacket. Ironic that I am now sitting in a gym while my entire school burns. Slowly the clouds of smoke have made their way inside. My eyes burn, and my head hurts. I went to the restroom. When they opened the doors I saw the fire burning the beauty that once existed beyond the gym.
Everyone gathered to sing songs of praise. “You give and take away.” Indeed this is what God has done. He has given, and now he has chosen to take away. I wonder what I will choose to say. Will I bless his name? This song was easy to sing in the comfort of my church or my youth group. I will admit I was filled with fear at first. It just didn’t make sense to me. Why would we lock up an entire campus in the gym while a fire burns just a few feet outside? Trust. Trust is such an easy concept to explain and to preach when you’re not the one sitting in the middle of the fire. I grabbed nothing else but my laptop, camera, chargers and a book. I was planning on doing homework. Ha! I figured the fire would be out soon. I am filled with joy, fear, concern, anger and enlightenment.
I am filled with joy knowing that I have the honor to be within such a strong community. I am joyous knowing that like Paul wanted, my community is filled with prayer. This joy fills me in the deepest parts of my soul, knowing that I have no control. God is the only one who can save this campus. He is the only one who can save me. Yet this God that I worship, the God of Israel, is the same God of forgiveness and the God of wrath. No matter what he is, my God is mighty to save.
I sit here angry. My school is on fire! I am stuck in a gym, and all I want to do is breathe clean air. So simple, clean air. This is something I had every day. My eyes burn; my lungs are angered with each breath I inhale.
I am enlightened. I ask myself, What made me come to Westmont? Was it the people? Was it the location? Was it the beautiful campus? Will things change tomorrow? Will I still love my campus even after the beauty has been burnt away? If this was last year, I would probably be disappointed. But things have changed. I have built strong relationships with the people I live with. I have learned to love my campus, my friends, my community and the people around me.
Westmont is not the trees and the ocean we find on and near campus. Westmont is the heart of college students who search for God in their everyday lives. Westmont is the community that seeks the Triune God through English, math, science and within one another. My school might be burning, but oh do we burn — we burn for Christ, and that can never turn to ashes.
— Stephanie Garcia
Followed by fire and catastrophe
Preview Days was going on during the fire, and I am one of this year’s Preview Day interns. I was eating dinner with a few of the families visiting campus when the evacuation order came, and I had to herd the students down to the gym. After checking on them throughout the night, I was able to leave around 2:30 a.m. with a few friends to stay at a relative’s house. I went home via train on Friday to Orange County to attend my grandparents’ birthday party. My phone had died in the chaos of the night, and I learned that a dead body on the tracks in Van Nuys delayed our train for an hour and a half. I had a minor meltdown and ended up sitting with a fellow Westmont student I had just met. We ended up becoming friends. She was an angel who supported me in my time of need and shared the Westmont community even though our school had burned and we were heading into the unknown. I went to the party in the same smoky dress I was wearing for Preview Days.
Instead of waking up to a peaceful home the next morning, I discovered a cloud of smoke in the sky. As it grew worse, I saw on the news that my hometown, Yorba Linda, was on fire. After gathering up essential belongings and waiting for my sister to beat the flames on her way home from work, we evacuated to my grandparents’ house in Brea. By the time we got there, a fire by her house had just burned my high school and was only a block away, so we evacuated yet again.
By the grace of God our homes were spared, and we were able to return. Then I awoke to another startling announcement: Indonesia suffered a 7.5 earthquake. I am leading this summer’s Indonesia Emmaus Road trip. Although I feel like I have been followed by fire and catastrophe, I am able to see God’s beauty in all this and His grace shining through. I feel so blessed to have survived it all unscathed, albeit, a bit smoky.
— Raquel Chevalier
I have learned the value of prayer
A friend and I had eaten an early dinner, and we sat in my room, watching ridiculous YouTube videos. I had a bus ticket home for the next day, so I had finished homework ahead of time. That obnoxious, tedious alarm screamed its warning at us, but we weren’t fazed until we smelled smoke. Out of the room we filed, annoyed, and trotted down the stairs of Clark M and started down the hill. My roommate told me to turn around. It was a real fire. The fantastical flames, the alien-red glow, menacingly silhouetted and licked playfully at the fringes of Clark. We stood frozen. “What do we do?” She asked the question we were both mentally howling. It was not a time for emotion, and so I forcefully pushed the lump back down my throat. “We get our stuff.” We ran back to the room. A laptop, guitar, teddy bear and two old notebooks are what I have to show for it. That was it. I took one last look around the room, almost knowing then that it really was my last.
I think I was in the gym for eight hours. The time flew by, and for once it was not because I was having fun — although playing card games certainly helped me survive, along with several misplaced and ironic jokes. Finally the girls from M got to leave, and I have never felt so strange walking outside of the gym into the numbly cold air. The smoke, a merciful balm to such a fiery wound, covered everything, and I could not see nor fathom the damage. It was too quiet. Being stuck in a gym is not my idea of an ideal situation, but somehow everyone else’s presence had made it that much better. And then there was silence — and a sense of finality, perhaps seasoned with a sprig of irrational panic.
I almost wanted to go back and walk among the ruins of Clark M. Would I find anything recognizable? Or just a mocking heap of ashes? I lost everything: CDs, DVDs, my grandma’s jewelry, the Light of Earendil, clothes, a Christmas tree, letters, stories, notebooks, my books, my beloved books. My gorgeous, wonderful books. Ironically “Fahrenheit 451” is now dust.
But I am thankful because we’re all alive, and I have my guitar and laptop and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” And because people are amazing. Why does it often take something traumatic for us to realize these sorts of obvious, everyday things? I have never given so many hugs or received so many in return. My teddy bear and guitar got passed around during my time in the gym quite frequently. I got so many voicemails and Facebook messages from people telling me they were praying, even those who are not at all religious. It was enough to last me a lifetime. Should I ever start to pity myself, I will recall this memory as proof that I am loved, we are loved, that God is love, that people reach out more than we know.
Through this experience I have learned the value of prayer. I cannot express how much the prayers I have received mean to me. And to my friends at Westmont who have now become so much dearer because of this trying situation — I know you are praying for me, and I am praying just as fervently for you. We will get through this.
— Ariel Dyer
The Dec. 1 service ended at the prayer chapel with the college hymn, "Great is Thy Faithfulness"
Westmont exists for this time
Sitting in our Summerland living room filled with refugees from campus, I couldn’t help but consider the lens that we were using to frame the fire. Once the local news broadcast flashed images of flames in Montecito, we made comments about every burning building: “That looks like Clark,” or “Is that the DC on fire?” or “That must be the math building in flames.” When the images were not of campus, our minds translated the televised flames to our beloved Westmont structures. Certainly the news on the television could not provide the complete truth; our imaginations carried us the rest of the way. Looking back, it seems like the human tendency is to follow the most dramatic plot.
I realized I was more than a student that night: I was a character in a literary drama. As I called family and friends from home I knew my words carried great power. The lens I used to frame the fires would influence my parents’ emotional concerns, my friends’ prayers, and the oral stories that would soon be told in my small country town of Marysville, Wash. Yet in nervous response, driven by fear and anxiety, I symbolically interpreted the red and yellow hillside flames as the complete consummation of Westmont. Through hurried words to family, I verbally painted a canvas image covered in black and red strokes without any recognizable buildings in its scope. My mind scurried ahead to write the last chapter of this story, a record of consummation and hopelessness. Metaphorically, I depicted Westmont as a war zone. Just as the burning of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D. scattered the Christian community and disrupted their worship, so too the Westmont fires were scattering my friends and disrupting my pattern of being. Nature was waging a war on my livelihood, and I was living in a story I never wanted to read, let alone experience.
Thankfully, this terrifying metaphor required reframing the morning after the fire. In reality, the campus was mostly spared. New images of buildings standing demanded me to reframe the narrative and rescript another ending to the story. Could my prediction of utter devastation actually serve as a glorious ruin? Could the burning of a few buildings at Westmont exist as a source for instruction on neighborly compassion and Christian community? Could this moment of pain exist for me to more intimately know the King who gloriously restores his people from pain into wholeness?
I feel I have been taken into the depths of a dark, destructive story so that I might empathize with the brokenhearted and empty. While the fire represents a ruin, it might just serve as a glorious ruin: refining my heart to compassionately connect and energetically respond to the immediacy of pain and suffering in my midst. By reframing the night of ruin to a morning of glory I am hopeful that my parents, friends and neighbors will know more fully the complex truth of God’s omnipresence. There is hope amidst the ashes!
An appropriate narrative in the aftermath of the fire requires what Aristotle labels the golden mean: a response that communicates both the pain in the moment and the courageous hope in the Lord. The fire asked me to both cry in helplessness and to respond with physical efforts of restoration; comfort those in my home who had lost everything as well as allow myself discomfort in the quiet hours of the night. I needed to communicate my emotions in moderation and protect myself from the extreme feelings of anxious-ness and despair, which, left without critique, can become a dangerous source of psychological distress, as Aristotle warns. Thankfully, the temperance outlined in his approach encourages me to balance courage and practical wisdom, fighting to construct a sensible script of the fire amidst vacillating emotional experiences.
As the narrative continues and I gather material for more chapters in the weeks to come, I am thankful to be able to evaluate this event through the lens of communication. If we define communication as loving appropriately through language, it is my prayer that the language I use to tell my story will serve the community well. I am confident Westmont exists for a time such as this; we exist to communicate hope amidst the ashes, to proclaim restoration and eternal life in a fallen and broken world.
— Melody Miles