(Photo courtesy of Thomas Aquinas College)

Catholic institution’s name now shared with California’s largest ever December wildfire    

Compost piles are still smoldering on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College, but the Catholic coed liberal arts institution is busily restoring its land as well as repairing buildings damaged in recent wildfires, according to Clark Tulberg, facilities manager.

 “We’re slowly getting back to normal,” Tulberg said, noting the fires caused students to miss taking their finals last semester and cost the college two weeks’ worth of classes. “Most of our damage was done to the landscaping. We’ve lost a lot of irrigation piping because of the fire, and that’s why it was difficult to put it out.”

The largest December wildfire to strike California in recorded history burned from Dec. 4 to Jan. 12 and bears the name “Thomas” because of how close the flames came to Thomas Aquinas, the college notes on its website, thomasaquinas.edu.

At its peak, the fire reached the campus athletic field, and save for a door that got burned in the entrance to one building, no administrative or academic building was touched by the flames. 

However, much of the area engulfed by flames was not as lucky as Thomas Aquinas. According to information from the State of California, the Thomas Fire burned almost 282,000 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 others.

The fire took the lives of one firefighter and one civilian, and 20 other people died from mudslides and debris flows triggered in the aftermath of the fire.

Close to home

The fire began the last Monday of the fall semester, with the initial fire outbreak occurring about a half-mile south of campus in Ventura County, around 6:28 p.m., the college stated.

Flames driven by easterly Santa Ana winds spread quickly, eventually burning around the campus perimeter as well as engulfing much of the campus’ “down below” area, which includes the area around the president’s residence. Most of the “down below” area is wooded sections located below the main campus.

When alerted, campus officials immediately called for an evacuation, and 371 students made their way in cars and college vehicles to Sacred Heart Church in neighboring Ventura, where they were met by faculty and the college’s board of governors, as well as parents and friends of the college, who gave them shelter in their homes.

“It was heartening to see how quickly we were able to find homes for 300 students,” Assistant Dean Christopher Decaen stated on the website. “There were so many generous offers of help.”

Meanwhile, about 20 neighbors of the college evacuated to campus and took refuge on the athletic field during the fire’s peak hours. Nobody on campus was killed in the fire, but Tulberg said he and his crew members all developed lung infections from prolonged exposure to smoke, and some suffered singed fingertips. Tulberg himself spent more than two weeks using a medicated respirator to heal his lungs.

The worst moment of the fire was around 2:30 a.m. Dec. 5, he said, noting that firefighters and college employees were stomping out fires all over campus, and the heat was intense.

“I could hear my beard sizzling,” he said. “It was an amazing, harrowing night, one that I won’t forget, and I’m sure it was a defining moment for all of us involved.” 

Fire and smoke

The fire turned the area around the college’s main campus into a spectacular roaring inferno, Tulberg said. He recalled hearing burning bamboo stands sounding like “automatic weapon fire” and fire generated winds being “the noisiest thing.”

He added that the scope of the fire was grimly impressive.

“I had active fires burning on the campus for three weeks,” Tulberg said. “We did lose a lot of trees. It used to be so lush that you couldn’t see 15 or 20 feet into the wooded ‘down below’ area, but now you can see easily an eighth of a mile.”

 “The fires pushed right up to the edges of our access road,” added President Michael F. McLean, who remained on campus along with his wife, Lynda, Tulberg, Operations Supervisor Pierre Rioux, Janitorial Maintenance Supervisor Andrew Carey, Landscape Assistant Ben Coughlin and Father Robert Marczewski, college chaplain, to provide support to the U.S. Forest Service fire crews who battled the flames throughout the night.

“The firefighters were truly heroic,” McLean said. “Thanks to their efforts, the flames, amazingly — maybe even miraculously — never reached any of our major structures.” Tulberg added that firefighters used the campus water supply to battle the flames, and said most of the fire’s $4 million in damage to Thomas Aquinas came from smoke.

“We’ve shampooed carpets, washed walls — I’ve got a large stack of blueprints in my office that are permeated with smoke damage,” he said.

“All the buildings were washed inside and out, and our workmen cleaned all the roofs, getting all the ash off the roofs.”

The fire destroyed light equipment and asphalt on campus, and melted sprinkler lines, he said, adding that all the college’s HVAC equipment duct work had to be cleaned.

“We’ve replaced all the furnace filters probably a dozen times,” Tulberg said.

Eventually the college had to run air purifying devices in its buildings for more than a month.

“We did lose one storage container where light equipment was stored, as well as theatrical props, but in the grand scheme of things, building-wise we came out very well,” Tulberg said. “A lot of our propane tanks were threatened by fire, but luckily we didn’t lose any of them.”

The college also lost several foot bridges in the “down below” area as well as a wooden staircase. A portion of the athletic field was burned, as were trees that lined a campus perimeter road.

One redwood in the wooded area was felled by the fire, and it’s likely at least two more damaged redwoods will be removed soon.

“In some areas you’ll see a hole in the ground, and that’s where a tree used to be,” Tulberg said.

 For a time, the fire also made walking around portions of the campus a dangerous undertaking.

“For weeks after the fire you could fall into a hot ash pit,” Tulberg said.

Although the college was spared major building damage, the college’s neighbors were not so lucky.

Tulberg’s own aunt, who lives about a quarter-mile from campus, lost her home to the fire, and his elderly parents had to be evacuated from their home, located next door to his. Nonetheless, Tulberg said he’s grateful the fire’s damage was limited at Thomas Aquinas, and he credited the Forest Service firefighters as well as his crew for helping him and campus officials protect both lives and property.

“I told the guys who worked with me ‘life threatening’ is not in your job description and said they could leave. But they stayed — I couldn’t have wished to be up here with a better group of guys.”


For more information on Thomas Aquinas College and the fire, as well as repair efforts, visit thomasaquinas.edu.