A long night of fear in the college gym

Chawkins and Weiss are Times staff writers.

The Westmont College gym was itchy hot and getting hotter. Eye-burning smoke seeped inside, despite the blue duct tape covering the cracks between the double doors.

As campus officials repeatedly assured about 800 students and faculty that this sturdy, cinder-block gym was the safest place to be, some evacuees formed prayer circles on the wooden floor.

Others made frantic cellphone calls to family and friends. One played a guitar and sang. A few burst into tears, and more joined them when a voice on the public-address system announced that some of the dorms were engulfed in flames. What was to come of them? Of the laptops they had left behind? Of the leafy campus of the small Christian liberal arts college tucked into the hills of Montecito?


Freshman Megan Reed tried to hold it together. Thursday was her 19th birthday. What was supposed to have been an evening of celebration with friends at a popular Italian restaurant on Santa Barbara’s State Street had turned into a long, sweaty night in the gymnasium.

“Just keep breathing,” she said to herself, “but not too deeply.” The air was thick with smoke. A confetti of ash began drifting down from the ceiling vents.

“A lot of the girls started freaking out,” Reed said afterward. “It made me uncomfortable.” She said she felt a surge of panic before taking comfort from her roommate, Codi Dennstedt. The picture of calm, Dennstedt, 18, had been forced to evacuate her home when she was in high school and wildfires raged through her hometown of Fallbrook, in northern San Diego County.

Amid the crying and the rising tension, Westmont President Gayle D. Beebe took to the PA system to reassure evacuees that they were in the safest place on campus.

The anxiety inside the building paled against the maelstrom outside, where tornadoes of fire and smoke skittered across the campus, igniting trees, buildings and the lawn.

After midnight, the worst had passed. Daylight revealed the toll: at least 14 of the 41 faculty homes, the physics building, the old math building, a pair of Quonset huts and four of the 17 buildings that make up Clark and Bauder halls were gone. One of those buildings was the home of the resident director and his family.


In a message to the campus Friday, Beebe expressed his gratitude that no one was injured by the fast-moving firestorm that swept down the hill and set the campus ablaze. “But we’re deeply saddened that 15 of our faculty families -- and one retired professor -- have lost their homes. Given the strength of the winds and the fire, we’re amazed that the damage isn’t greater.”

Tom Fikes, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, lost a home but managed to escape along with his wife, Jerolyn, two teenage children, their pet hamster, two cats and the two kittens they were fostering for a nearby animal shelter.

They also managed to collect a prized guitar, but had to leave behind many other musical instruments and a handcrafted kayak that he and his son had spent hundreds of hours building out of blond mahogany. “That was a heartbreak,” he said after touring the wreckage Friday morning. “I had hoped the garage would be there or the kayak would be sitting off to the side.”

When he arrived at the ruins, firefighters were still dousing hot spots. One handed him a portion of a ceramic figurine made by one of his children. “It was a bit more emotional than I thought it would be,” he said.

He was amazed at the randomness of the destruction. One healthy plant on the porch sat untouched next to others reduced to charcoal.

The campus-owned house where he had lived for a decade was all but gone. The house across the street was untouched. The hopscotch pattern repeated through the tight-knit community of faculty housing.


“Every house you saw standing was a relief because you know that family was spared. Every house down was devastating. The way the wind whipped around the fire was not unlike the way a tornado whips around,” he said. “It’s somewhat random.”

Fikes also lost his office. Yet his nearby lab was unscathed.

The orderly evacuation of students came after repeated drills on campus, including a recent one that offered the chance of winning an iPod just for showing up at the gym. The campus of 1,300 students and 90 professors had developed a plan to keep students safely sheltered in the gym rather than letting them risk being overtaken by fire while driving down streets lined with tall eucalyptus and other highly flammable vegetation.

“The students did amazingly well,” said Chris Call, a campus vice president who organized the crisis response, which included a three-day supply of food and water and a medical station. Officials showed two movies, “The Incredibles” and “Elf,” to pass the time as fear devolved to boredom. By 2 a.m., some students were given the option of moving to San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara or to Reality Church in Carpinteria.

Reed and Dennstedt opted to go to Reality, taking a bus down the hill to the church a couple of blocks from the ocean. “As soon as we stepped off the bus, the air was so cool and refreshing to breathe,” Reed said. “We really didn’t notice it until we got here, how good fresh air can be.”