Catholic institution’s name now shared with California’s largest everrnDecember wildfire
Compost piles are still smoldering on the campus of Thomas AquinasrnCollege, but the Catholic coed liberal arts institution is busily restoring itsrnland as well as repairing buildings damaged in recent wildfires, according tornClark Tulberg, facilities manager.
“We’re slowly getting back to normal,” Tulberg said, notingrnthe fires caused students to miss taking their finals last semester and costrnthe college two weeks’ worth of classes. “Most of our damage was done to thernlandscaping. We’ve lost a lot of irrigation piping because of the fire, andrnthat’s why it was difficult to put it out.”
The largest December wildfire to strike California in recordedrnhistory burned from Dec. 4 to Jan. 12 and bears the name “Thomas” because ofrnhow 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 savernfor a door that got burned in the entrance to one building, no administrativernor academic building was touched by the flames.
However, much of the area engulfed by flames was not as lucky asrnThomas Aquinas. According to information from the State of California, thernThomas Fire burned almost 282,000 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures and damagedrn280 others.
The fire took the lives of one firefighter and one civilian, andrn20 other people died from mudslides and debris flows triggered in the aftermathrnof the fire.
The fire began the last Monday of the fall semester, with therninitial fire outbreak occurring about a half-mile south of campus in VenturarnCounty, around 6:28 p.m., the college stated.
Flames driven by easterly Santa Ana winds spread quickly,rneventually burning around the campus perimeter as well as engulfing much of therncampus’ “down below” area, which includes the area around the president’srnresidence. Most of the “down below” area is wooded sections located below thernmain campus.
When alerted, campus officials immediately called for anrnevacuation, and 371 students made their way in cars and college vehicles tornSacred Heart Church in neighboring Ventura, where they were met by faculty andrnthe college’s board of governors, as well as parents and friends of therncollege, who gave them shelter in their homes.
“It was heartening to see how quickly we were able to find homesrnfor 300 students,” Assistant Dean Christopher Decaen stated on the website.rn“There were so many generous offers of help.”
Meanwhile, about 20 neighbors of the college evacuated to campusrnand took refuge on the athletic field during the fire’s peak hours. Nobody onrncampus was killed in the fire, but Tulberg said he and his crew members allrndeveloped lung infections from prolonged exposure to smoke, and some sufferedrnsinged fingertips. Tulberg himself spent more than two weeks using a medicatedrnrespirator to heal his lungs.
The worst moment of the fire was around 2:30 a.m. Dec. 5, he said,rnnoting that firefighters and college employees were stomping out fires all overrncampus, and the heat was intense.
“I could hear my beard sizzling,” he said. “It was an amazing,rnharrowing night, one that I won’t forget, and I’m sure it was a defining momentrnfor all of us involved.”
Fire and smoke
The fire turned the area around the college’s main campus into arnspectacular roaring inferno, Tulberg said. He recalled hearing burning bamboornstands sounding like “automatic weapon fire” and fire generated winds beingrn“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,”rnTulberg said. “We did lose a lot of trees. It used to be so lush that yourncouldn’t see 15 or 20 feet into the wooded ‘down below’ area, but now you canrnsee easily an eighth of a mile.”
“The fires pushed right up to the edges of our access road,”rnadded President Michael F. McLean, who remained on campus along with his wife,rnLynda, Tulberg, Operations Supervisor Pierre Rioux, Janitorial MaintenancernSupervisor Andrew Carey, Landscape Assistant Ben Coughlin and Father RobertrnMarczewski, college chaplain, to provide support to the U.S. ForestrnService fire crews who battled the flames throughout the night.
“The firefighters were truly heroic,” McLean said. “Thanks torntheir efforts, the flames, amazingly — maybe even miraculously — never reachedrnany of our major structures.” Tulberg added that firefighters used the campusrnwater supply to battle the flames, and said most of the fire’s $4 million inrndamage to Thomas Aquinas came from smoke.
“We’ve shampooed carpets, washed walls — I’ve got a large stack ofrnblueprints in my office that are permeated with smoke damage,” he said.
“All the buildings were washed inside and out, and our workmenrncleaned all the roofs, getting all the ash off the roofs.”
The fire destroyed light equipment and asphalt on campus, andrnmelted sprinkler lines, he said, adding that all the college’s HVAC equipmentrnduct work had to be cleaned.
“We’ve replaced all the furnace filters probably a dozen times,”rnTulberg said.
Eventually the college had to run air purifying devices in itsrnbuildings for more than a month.
“We did lose one storage container where light equipment wasrnstored, as well as theatrical props, but in the grand scheme of things,rnbuilding-wise we came out very well,” Tulberg said. “A lot of our propane tanksrnwere threatened by fire, but luckily we didn’t lose any of them.”
The college also lost several foot bridges in the “down below”rnarea as well as a wooden staircase. A portion of the athletic field was burned,rnas were trees that lined a campus perimeter road.
One redwood in the wooded area was felled by the fire, and it’srnlikely 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 arntree used to be,” Tulberg said.
For a time, the fire also made walking around portions ofrnthe campus a dangerous undertaking.
“For weeks after the fire you could fall into a hot ash pit,”rnTulberg said.
Although the college was spared major building damage, therncollege’s neighbors were not so lucky.
Tulberg’s own aunt, who lives about a quarter-mile from campus,rnlost her home to the fire, and his elderly parents had to be evacuatedrnfrom their home, located next door to his. Nonetheless, Tulberg said he’srngrateful the fire’s damage was limited at Thomas Aquinas, and he credited thernForest Service firefighters as well as his crew for helping him and campusrnofficials protect both lives and property.
“I told the guys who worked with me ‘life threatening’ is not inrnyour job description and said they could leave. But they stayed — I couldn’trnhave wished to be up here with a better group of guys.”
For more information on Thomas Aquinas Collegernand the fire, as well as repair efforts, visit thomasaquinas.edu.