Thomas Aquinas College Survives Harrowing ‘Thomas’ Fire

Three weeks before Christmas, a ‘miracle’ spared the college from California’s largest wildfire, which erupted adjacent to its campus.

Above, the fire rages later in the evening of Dec. 4. Also below: Looking from the back (north side) of the upper campus of Thomas Aquinas College towards the lower campus, the fire still blazes Dec. 5 (with pine tree shown).  Facilities personnel stomp out hot spots, as students evacuate by car as the fire continues.
Above, the fire rages later in the evening of Dec. 4. Also below: Looking from the back (north side) of the upper campus of Thomas Aquinas College towards the lower campus, the fire still blazes Dec. 5 (with pine tree shown). Facilities personnel stomp out hot spots, as students evacuate by car as the fire continues. (photo: Courtesy of Thomas Aquinas College)

VENTURA Calif. — Thomas Aquinas College narrowly escaped the worst of the Southern California fire that took its name, but still suffered extensive damage on a campus where trees are still smoldering and the ash is nearly knee-deep in some places, forcing an early end to the fall semester.

College President Michael McLean, who stayed on campus as the fire enveloped the surrounding land, called it a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” that he would “not want to repeat.”

The Thomas Fire — which, as of this writing, was still raging and had become the largest in California history — began sometime in the early evening of Dec. 4, about half a mile south of Thomas Aquinas College’s campus in Santa Paula, about 66 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Senior Nicholas Gartonzavesky was studying for a nighttime seminar in the college commons when he noticed a bunch of students running out of the building. He ran out with them and saw a glow around the hills and was struck by how much closer it was than another minor fire that had broken out in the summer.

Around 6:30pm, college officials rang the chapel bell — an emergency alert that has only been used a handful of times in the college’s history. About 365 undergraduates flocked to the commons, where college officials made the decision to evacuate. Students were given three minutes to grab whatever they could from their dorms. Gartonzavesky had just enough time to collect his laptop, some “important documents” and a “grab bag” he had prepared after the fire scare over the summer. Then students piled into their cars and headed to a safe rendezvous point at a local parish.

The last students departed by 8pm, according to Clark Tulberg, an alum and former general contractor who serves as head of facilities management. Tulberg and his crew of three employees spent the next hour racing throughout campus, closing doors and locking windows — any open spaces, he said, could invite the flames in. Staff also did a room-by-room search to confirm that no one had been left behind as local forestry firefighters swarmed to the area around the campus.

With the students safely away, McLean and the school’s facilities management crew decided to stay on campus as the fire neared. “I wanted to stay to do what I could to protect the campus and to coordinate communications with those who were going to be off campus,” McLean said. “And I generally felt responsible as the president for the safety of the campus.”

Then the wait began.

Around 1 or 1:30am, Tulberg knew the fire was very close. He and two of his workers climbed the bell tower to find out from which direction the fire would hit the campus. They saw that it was approaching the college from all four sides.

“I knew that the moment had come,” Tulberg said.


‘A View Out of Dante’

McLean and his wife were led out of the faculty building and on to an athletic field, where he had moved his car. Tulberg, his workers and some neighbors had also pulled their cards onto the field.

Soon after, the firestorm descended on the campus. Streams of fire cascaded down surrounding hills, like lava from a volcano. One-hundred-foot jets blew out of the storm, fueled by the Santa Ana winds. When the flames attacked a tree, they started in the roots, working their way up through the center before shooting out of a branch that had been broken or pruned off. “It would look like a blowtorch coming out,” Tulberg said.

As hot air flowed into bamboo on campus, it exploded, sounding like small-arms fire. The heat was so intense on the lower part of the campus — where the president’s house, a grotto and the outdoor Stations of the Cross are located — that Tulberg and his crew could only walk to the top of a hill overlooking it and glance down for a few seconds at a time.

“It was raining fire. It was a view out of Dante,” Tulberg said, referring to the medieval poet’s description of hell.

As firefighters battled the main blaze, Tulberg and his crew — armed only with shovels — attacked hot spots that popped up on the campus itself. On the athletic field, the cars were moved to dodge potential flames.

By dawn, the worst of the fire had passed. Tulberg was sure that Thomas Aquinas had lost at least one building. It turned out almost all of them — even the president’s house — had been spared. Instead, just one structure had been destroyed: a storage unit — and the door to one of the dorms had been charred when sparks hit an outside chair that had been leaning against it.


Extensive Damage

Still, the damage is extensive. The hills encircling the campus are all burned. On campus, the brunt of the fire was borne on the lower area. Before the fire, it had been a lush area, with redwoods and sycamore trees with drawbridges crossing over streams. That morning it was nearly unrecognizable to Tulberg: All of the underbrush was gone, and a layer of ash ankle to knee-deep carpeted the area.

“Now it’s like walking on the moon,” Tulberg said.

Meanwhile, the evacuated students had been assigned to stay in the homes of faculty members, at least one board member and other friends of the college. Gartonzavesky and nine other students stayed at the home of Milton “Bud” Daily, a member of the college’s board of governors.

They spent the rest of the week there. They read books checked out from the local library. They watched movies. They followed the news on television and online about the fire. And they prayed. Each night, the Dailys led the students in a Rosary.

“It was like family,” Gartonzavesky said.

Ultimately, the college decided not to resume classes and sent the students home early, about a week before when they would have taken their final exams. Students will return Jan. 7 and start their finals the next day, with the option of coming back early Jan. 4 to study, according to McLean.

On Dec. 9, five days after the fire broke out, students were let back on campus to pack up their dorms and head home. The college had set up fans to blow out the smoke. Even then there was still so much smoke that it was safe for students to be in their dorms for only 30 to 45 minutes, Gartonzavesky said.

“It was very, very smoky on campus still,” Gartonzavesky said.


The Recovery Begins

After the students left, Tulberg continued to oversee the recovery, which included removing debris, putting out the smoldering hot spots that remain, and troubleshooting the myriad other problems caused by the fire. For Tulberg, the reality of the fire has yet to fade. “I’m told the fire was over two weeks ago,” he said in an interview Dec. 19, “and it just seems like a few days to me.”

So far, the college does not yet have an official estimate for the cost of all the damage. Tulberg said it was in the hundreds of thousands. But some damage may lie in the future, due to the possibility of mudslides during the upcoming rainy season, which begins in January. Tulberg said he is consulting soil engineers and civil engineers to help the college prepare.

“This event, in a way, is not over,” McLean said. “We won’t know the full impact until the rains come.”

For now, McLean said the fire has only been a “major inconvenience” for the college, in contrast to the tragedy it has been for so many others in the area. He credits the fire-resistant building materials, such as clay-tile rooves and stucco over wood buildings, the bushes and trees that surrounded them, and the local firefighters with helping to save the college.

But there is also a sense that God’s hand was at work in the whole process. “I have a strong sense that the college was spared and that we were very fortunate to escape with so little damage and certainly escape without loss of life,” McLean said.

Gartonzavesky said, “It’s basically a miracle.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.