That the largest December wildfire to strike California in recorded history bears the name “Thomas” is a testament to just how close its flames came to Thomas Aquinas College — and how remarkable it is that the College’s campus emerged from the blaze largely unscathed.
The fire began on the last Monday of the fall semester, December 4, just as students were leaving dinner in St. Joseph Commons and upperclassmen were preparing for the evening’s seminars. The initial outbreak occurred about a half-mile south of campus, around 6:28 p.m. The flames, driven by the easterly Santa Ana winds, spread quickly. Given the fire’s proximity to campus, authorities dubbed it “Thomas.”
Alert to the danger, campus officials immediately called for an evacuation. Students quickly made their way, in private cars and College vehicles, to Sacred Heart Church in neighboring Ventura, where they were met by members of the faculty and Board of Governors, 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,” says Assistant Dean Christopher Decaen. “There were so many generous offers of help.”
The flames arrived on campus within the next few hours. “The fires pushed right up to the edges of our access road,” observes President Michael F. McLean, who voluntarily remained on campus — along with his wife, Lynda, Facilities Manager Clark Tulberg, Operations Supervisor Pierre Rioux, Janitorial Maintenance Supervisor Andrew Carey, Landscape Assistant Ben Coughlin, and chaplain Rev. Robert Marczewski — to provide support to the fire crews who battled the flames throughout the night. “The firefighters were truly heroic,” he says. “Thanks to their efforts, the flames, amazingly — maybe even miraculously — never reached any of our major structures.”
Others, including several alumni and friends of the College, were less fortunate. The Thomas Fire, which has consumed more than 230,000 acres and spread west all the way to the Pacific Ocean and north to Santa Barbara County, has destroyed some 800 structures, including hundreds of homes. “We are grateful and relieved that our buildings were spared,” says Dr. McLean. “And yet, at the same time, we grieve and continue to pray for our neighbors who are still in danger and who have lost so much.”
Total costs of the fire to the College have yet to be determined, but promise to be substantial. “We have had to rent generators and hire additional security,” says Dr. McLean. “We also need to replace all the food in our freezers and refrigerators, and we will need to remove many large, old trees that were badly damaged across the campus.” It is expected that these costs, plus the expense of opening the campus early in January to host the postponed first-semester examinations, will run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
“We are grateful to God, and to the many, many people who offered their prayers for us during these perilous few days,” says Dr. McLean. “We also thank all the kind souls who made their homes available, welcoming our students as family during the evacuation.”
Now that Thomas Aquinas College begins the process of recovering from the Thomas Fire, officials find themselves in need of help once more. “We are mindful that dealing with the fire and its effects will impose a significant burden on our budget,” says Dr. McLean. “So we ask all of our friends to consider supporting the College with a gift to our Annual Fund. We thank you all, in advance, for your kindness and generosity.”