Burned cars are seen on a piece of property Dec. 5 during a wildfire near Santa Paula, Calif. Pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds, the fire spread with explosive speed to 31,000 acres in Southern California's Ventura County, forcing thousands to evacuate in the dark. (CNS photo/David McNew, Reuters)

Historic San Buenaventura Mission and Thomas Aquinas College were among thousands of facilities forced to evacuate Dec. 4 and 5 by a fast-moving and deadly brush fire in western Ventura County.

Most private and public schools in the fire area were closed Dec. 5, either from the direct threat of fire or extremely poor air quality caused by smoke from the fire, which had burned more than 45,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of structures (including a hospital) and caused one death.

Among the schools closed Dec. 5 were Sacred Heart Elementary School and St. Augustine Academy in east Ventura; Holy Cross Elementary School in west Ventura, adjacent to San Buenaventura Mission; St. Bonaventure High School and Our Lady of the Assumption Elementary School, located next to one another in central Ventura; and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, one of the few boarding schools within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

San Buenaventura Mission, founded by St. Junípero Serra in 1782, was evacuated and locked early Dec. 5, said Father Tom Elewaut, pastor. The fire was burning in the foothills just above the mission, close to the landmark Serra Cross in Grant Park, commemorating the site on which Father Serra established the last of nine missions he personally founded.

Throughout Ventura, the air quality was “just brutal, so bad that we couldn’t have had school today even if the fire was no longer a threat,” said Marc Groff, principal of St. Bonaventure High School. He and his wife Pat, principal of Our Lady of the Assumption School, made the decision to close their schools early Tuesday morning, he said, and it was likely the schools would be closed Wednesday as well, given the bad air quality.

“Power was out all night, and we didn’t get it back until about 8:15 this morning,” Marc Groff told Angelus News. Cellular phone and internet service was “spotty,” he added, making electronic communication with staff and student families difficult.

Between 30 and 40 student families and as many as 10 faculty and staff members had been forced to evacuate from their homes, Groff said, and at least two St. Bonaventure alumni families had lost their homes. One staff member who lives in Ojai, close to Villanova Prep, was evacuating Tuesday, he added.

The campus at Villanova, one of the few boarding schools within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, “is safe at this time but it is not safe to come into Ojai so we will not have school today,” said Nancy O’Sullivan, head of school, in a statement posted Dec. 5 on Villanova’s website.

As a precaution, all 390 students of Thomas Aquinas College were evacuated Monday night, first to Sacred Heart Church in east Ventura, then to homes of various friends, faculty, and alumni, according to a statement from the college. “Classes for Tuesday, December 5, have been canceled,” the statement said.

The fire, propelled by strong Santa Ana wind gusts of more than 50 miles per hour, began after 6 p.m. Monday (Dec. 4) near Steckel Park north of Santa Paula, less than three miles from the Aquinas College campus.

The fire quickly spread west toward the community of Saticoy and the cities of Ventura and Ojai, and is currently estimated at 45,000 acres. One person died in a car accident trying to flee the fire, said Ventura County fire officials.

An estimated 150 buildings, including residences and Vista del Mar Hospital (a behavioral health care facility in Ventura), were reported destroyed as of 6 a.m. Tuesday (Dec. 5). Some 27,000 residents in Ventura, Saticoy and Santa Paula have been evacuated, including all patients and staff of Vista del Mar.

Additional Catholic institutions in the area of the fire include Siena Prayer Center at St. Catherine by the Sea, and the Holy Cross Sisters’ residence close to the foothills in north Ventura; Our Lady of the Assumption Church in central Ventura; St. Sebastian and Our Lady of Guadalupe Churches in Santa Paula; and St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai.

Archbishop José H. Gomez called for prayers for those impacted by the wildfires. “Friends, join me please in praying for our brothers and sisters in Ventura and Sylmar who are facing devastating fires and high winds,” he said through his social media channels. “Pray for the families and their homes and also for the firefighters and rescue workers. May God keep them all safe and put an end to these fires!”