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Tiny College Mostly Escapes Colossal Fires

  • The view from Thomas Aquinas College last week in Santa Paula, California, where a wildfire erupted half a mile from campus. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Thomas Aquinas College



The Washington Post
Monday, December 18, 2017

Students leaving dinner and heading for evening seminars saw flames rising near their Southern California campus. Everyone could hear the Santa Ana winds swirling in gusts, hot and dry and fast.

Almost immediately, the chapel bell rang, summoning students to an emergency meeting at Thomas Aquinas College, a small and lovely private school nestled in the ridges near Los Padres National Forest.

The facilities manager whispered in the college president’s ear. And the president told students to take a blanket, a pillow and any other essentials they could grab within a minute from their dorm rooms. Half an hour later, the campus had emptied. Within an hour, the road was shut down.

The wildfire still searing Southern California, on its way to becoming the largest in the state’s history, started Dec. 4 about a half-mile south of this Catholic liberal arts college — so close that the school gave the fire its name: Thomas.

Thomas Aquinas is an unusual place, tiny and philosophical, with no majors and much reverence for the classical texts that frame and define its curriculum. When a force of nature sparked here, it left physical scars, made more than a few talk of miracles and taught lessons that will endure.

While employees helped find temporary housing for the 365 students who evacuated to a church, facilities manager Clark Tulberg and others locked down buildings. With firefighters stationed at each one, the few college officials who remained were hopeful the flames would bypass the school. Michael F. McLean had evacuated the president’s house with his wife, relocating to an office on campus, determined to stay at the school. At 1 a.m., it seemed safe to take a nap.

But after 2 a.m., the wind shifted direction. Suddenly, the fire had encircled the campus, along ridgelines in every direction. And then “it descended on the campus from all sides all at once.

“It was a view of hell,” Tulberg said. “Just walls of flame in every direction.”

It was time to move, to the last-stand area, the campus’ athletic fields.

So about 3 a.m., McLean and his wife and a few others parked their cars on the field. They were surrounded by fire. They were getting rained on — Tulberg and others had turned on the sprinklers.

It was raining fire, too. Burning embers, blown by the wind, were falling everywhere.

McLean, who has been at the college for nearly 40 years as a professor and administrator, watched the flames approaching the campus’s perimeter road, and saw blazes shoot up suddenly. He assumed those were college buildings burning.

He was glad the college chaplain had stayed on campus, and was praying.

Tulberg and a couple of other workers were outside on the field, stomping out fires ignited by falling embers. When the blazes were too big to stomp out, they would rush over with sprinklers. The college’s well stopped working when the power grid burned up, he said, but backup generators kept the water running.

He had seen burning ash before. But never like this: “There were sticks a foot and a half long, all in flames, landing all around you.

“We were in the fire,” he said.

Tulberg, an alumnus of Thomas Aquinas who left his self-made business of 40 years in January to join the college staff, told his workers that risking their lives was not in their job description.

They were recent graduates, and they kept going, stomping on flames, moving sprinklers.

“You see a mountain on fire, a whole mountain, and it is full of fire,” he said. “And the winds are so strong that these plumes of fire are reaching out 100 feet horizontally. It is terrifyingly beautiful.”

Because of tar that naturally occurs near the surface in the area, thick acrid smoke filled the air, reminiscent of burning tires. They could hear trees crashing down, and the pop of bamboo shoots exploding in the heat sounded like small-arms fire.

During the worst of it, Tulberg said, his large gray beard was sizzling.

His job, he said, was to project calm.

He was thinking, though, about when he was 6 years old. He had been playing with a candle when his shirt caught fire.

The recovery took years and years, he said, with all the skin grafts.

“I knew what was at stake,” he said. “It is no fun to be on fire.”

As dawn approached that morning, the people on the field marveled: The flames had been stopped at the perimeter road. No buildings — other than a large storage container — had been lost. The people fighting the fire had been heroic, McLean said. “Thanks to their efforts, the flames, amazingly — maybe even miraculously — never reached any of our major structures.”

By 6 or 7 a.m., McLean said, they felt the worst was over. “But many others had not seen the worst.”

The fire rages on; it was only 30 percent contained Thursday, more than a week after it started, with more than 240,000 acres burned and nearly 1,000 buildings destroyed.

Tulberg went to check on his aunt’s house near campus and found it destroyed, still burning; a friend’s house was gone, too. McLean had friends who lost homes. Many faculty members had to evacuate not just once but twice or three times. The school’s longtime nurse lost her home.

But in this close-knit community they are grateful, too, that the campus was spared. The president’s house remains standing, with singed grass. That part of campus had been park-like, with 25 acres of woodland ferns fed by springs. “Now, it looks like the moon,” Tulberg said.

A dorm door was scorched. Hundreds of trees were destroyed. The hills all around are blackened. Tulberg saw a squirrel darting back and forth in apparent shock. (“I’m not allowed to panic,” Tulberg said, “but I sure felt for him. Inside, I was feeling the same way.”)

They began scrubbing the smoke out of buildings, throwing out spoiled food, cobbling ways to communicate with students and families, cleaning soot out of fountains. There was no power, no phone service, no Internet. Within a mile from campus, 14 power lines were toppled.

Milton Daily, a member of the board of governors, had gone to the church where students evacuated, concerned that many had nowhere to go. He and his wife, who live in Ventura County, took 10 home with them.

They could see, from the windows of their house, a 180-degree view of the fire in the distance. In the days that followed, they helped the students lug home library books to study for final exams, shared meals and decorated a Christmas tree listening to a recording of Bing Crosby crooning carols.

When school officials announced they would postpone exams until spring semester, the students went home — to Maine, to Ohio, to Washington state, to Northern California. But before that, the Dailys came home one evening to find the students had planned a surprise concert for them. They sang, in Latin, classical Christmas songs.

“With tears in my eyes, I still think about it,” Heather Daily said. “They all harmonized. It was just simply beautiful. We are family.”

Parts of Thomas Aquinas still smolder.

A week and a half later, trees remain on fire; the flames work their way in from the roots up the core of the trunk until, perhaps, shooting out the side like a blowtorch 20 feet overhead, Tulberg said. He has started to worry about what will happen to the bare hillsides if spring rains come. When a few staff members returned to campus and complained about “a smoke smell,” he wasn’t ready to hear it yet. “Are your fingertips burned?” he thought.

But power was restored to campus this week, and wildlife has begun to reappear. “To hear birds in the air, chirping, it’s such a reassuring, pleasant sound,” Tulberg said.

McLean has been working from his new office — he dragged a chair out to the faculty parking lot, and, if he’s next to a certain bush, he gets two bars of signal on his cellphone, enough to send texts and make patchy calls. He’s feeling grateful, for the firefighters’ and his employees’ courage, for the closeness that made the evacuation and relocation so easy, for the grace that spared Thomas Aquinas.

It was about 75 degrees and sunny as he worked in the empty parking lot one day this week, preparing for students and faculty to return in January on a modified schedule. The day was picture postcard, he said. It’s Southern California: When it’s not a disaster, it’s perfect.