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

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

Amongrnthe schools closed Dec. 5 were Sacred Heart Elementary School and St. AugustinernAcademy in east Ventura; Holy Cross Elementary School in west Ventura, adjacentrnto San Buenaventura Mission; St. Bonaventure High School and Our Lady of thernAssumption Elementary School, located next to one another in central Ventura;rnand Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, one of the few boarding schoolsrnwithin the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

SanrnBuenaventura Mission, founded by St. Junípero Serra in 1782, was evacuated andrnlocked early Dec. 5, said Father Tom Elewaut, pastor. The fire was burning inrnthe foothills just above the mission, close to the landmark Serra Cross in GrantrnPark, commemorating the site on which Father Serra established the last of ninernmissions he personally founded.

ThroughoutrnVentura, the air quality was “just brutal, so bad that we couldn’t have hadrnschool today even if the fire was no longer a threat,” said Marc Groff,rnprincipal of St. Bonaventure High School. He and his wife Pat, principal of OurrnLady of the Assumption School, made the decision to close their schools earlyrnTuesday morning, he said, and it was likely the schools would be closed Wednesdayrnas well, given the bad air quality.

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

Betweenrn30 and 40 student families and as many as 10 faculty and staff members had beenrnforced to evacuate from their homes, Groff said, and at least two St.rnBonaventure alumni families had lost their homes. One staff member who lives inrnOjai, 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 havernschool today,” said Nancy O’Sullivan, head of school, in a statement postedrnDec. 5 on Villanova’s website.

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

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

The fire quickly spreadrnwest toward the community of Saticoy and the cities of Ventura and Ojai, and isrncurrently estimated at 45,000 acres. One person died in a car accident tryingrnto flee the fire, said Ventura County fire officials.

An estimated 150rnbuildings, including residences and Vista del Mar Hospital (a behavioral healthrncare facility in Ventura), were reported destroyed as of 6 a.m. Tuesday (Dec.rn5). Some 27,000 residents in Ventura, Saticoy and Santa Paula have beenrnevacuated, including all patients and staff of Vista del Mar.

Additional Catholicrninstitutions in the area of the fire include Siena Prayer Center at St. Catherinernby the Sea, and the Holy Cross Sisters’ residence close to the foothills inrnnorth Ventura; Our Lady of the Assumption Church in central Ventura; St.rnSebastian and Our Lady of Guadalupe Churches in Santa Paula; and St. ThomasrnAquinas 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!”

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