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Fire damages Ojai Valley School's upper campus, but administrators are determined to reopen for spring semester

Mike Hall-Mounsey, president and CEO of the Ojai Valley School, visited the hilltop upper school campus Wednesday to survey the damage wrought by the Thomas fire.

The school’s two-story dormitory for girls, which also has apartments for faculty, was destroyed. The science and technology building, erected about a decade ago with labs, lecture halls and classrooms, was leveled by the flames. Classroom doors were charred, and a part of the boys’ dormitory sustained damage.

“It came through here — gale-force winds with embers,” Hall-Mounsey said. “Winds burst doors open. Embers reached into attics and windows. The firefighters said they couldn’t save it all. They saved what they could.” 

The rest of the fall semester has been canceled for the upper school, which has about 120 students — 40 of whom attend only for days. The rest board.

Administrators made the decision Monday night to evacuate and put students on two buses. They fled by 8:30 p.m. and were taken to the lower school campus, which was not damaged. As they drove off, Hall-Mounsey saw the lights of firefighters’ bulldozers on the ridge across the canyon, which sits over St. Thomas Aquinas College.

After they left, the blaze roared over the ridge and ripped through the canyon, kicking up embers that sent the fire hopscotching across campus. The head of the upper school and a maintenance worker stayed as long as they could to douse hot spots and protect the property. 

No students or faculty were injured in the fire. Many, though, lost all their possessions. Family members of students, faculty and alumni also have had houses severely damaged or destroyed, compounding the loss, the president said. At the burned dorm, cracked bowls, a blackened oven and the charred remnants of an ironing board were among the rubble. Heat emanated from the pile of detritus. 

Hall-Mounsey is hopeful, he said, as he walked past the smoldering science center. Typically the hilltop campus provides views of the entire Ojai Valley below. On Wednesday, under an orange sun and a smoky sky, he could barely see the floor of the charred canyons below. 

“The bones of the campus are good. We can replace what we lost,” he said. “The heart and soul of the school is alive and well.”

He is determined to see the school reopen for the spring semester on Jan. 8, with some students housed in modular units on parts of the campus — such as the athletic fields — that were spared. 

“A lot of our philosophy is about resilience, grit, backpacking and making do,” he said. “We will have a pioneers spirit when we come back.” 

Alumni and family members from all over the world have expressed support and pledged to help the school rebuild. Ojai Valley School is among a number of private and boarding schools in the area that attract students from across the nation and around the world. About 40 upper school students hail from abroad, Hall-Mounsey said. Ojai Valley’s upper school campus is believed to be among the most damaged by the fire. 

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