Westmont College evacuation brings back memories of Tea Fire - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Westmont College evacuation brings back memories of Tea Fire

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Photo by Scott Craig Photo by Scott Craig

The Thomas Fire has forced mandatory evacuations for students, faculty, and staff at Westmont College. Three evacuations were put in place Sunday, but this isn't the first time this campus has been threatened by wildfires.

The Tea Fire in November 2008 damaged and burned several buildings on campus. So far, the campus is not in the destructive path in the Thomas Fire, but it is close to the burn zone.

Westmont College President Gayle Beebe remembers when the Tea Fire burned through parts of campus, saying that winds picked up to 70 miles per hour.

"The night of the Tea Fire, it was so fast," Beebe said. "My wife and kids barely escaped from our home."

"62 students lost their dorm rooms, 15 faculty lost their homes, in the case of three of those faculty, they also lost their office on campus," Beebe said.

The second time around, he's evacuated from his home above the campus, along with other staff, faculty and students. On Monday, thick smoke hovered over an empty campus that would usually be filled with some 1,200 students for finals week.

Edee Schulze, the vice president for student life on campus, said the Tea Fire experience was part of the preparation in evacuating students on Sunday. Both Schulze and Beebe said the process of getting everyone out safely went seamlessly and that everyone was cooperative.

"We had about 300 students, maybe 450 who were still around so we told them to come to the gym, which is our emergency evacuation site," Schulze said.

Some students went home, others were evacuated to a nearby church before being placed with families in the community. This week is finals week for the campus. Beebe said faculty and students have worked out scheduling to take and turn in finals, but students will not returning to campus prior to their winter break. In the meantime, they'll hope for the best and that their campus will remain untouched. 

"We're hoping and praying that fire crews are able to keep it north of all the inhabited areas including the college," Beebe said.

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