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Fire: Day One

Tara Tran | Horizon Managing Editor
Sarah Davis | Horizon News Editor

Last night's wildfire that barreled its way down the foothills of Montecito and left Westmont College, a small liberal arts Christian college positioned in the middle of the region's large estates, in disbelief, confusion, and thankfulness.

The fire erupted near six in the evening above the campus. Authorities are reporting that the fire originated from a tea garden that had once existed around the area near the top of the hill above the college, for alums, this area is known as "The Arches." The arrival of the Santa Ana winds earlier that afternoon caused the flames to grow large and quickly.

Due to increased fire dangers, Westmont College had been preparing and training for crisis situations. On the morning before the fire, the college had participated in an all-campus earthquake drill.

When students saw the fire growing on the hill, many made their way to Murchison Gym, a spot located on the college's lower campus that had been designated as a shelter area for students and the surrounding community, while some with cars left when they had the chance. Those who left waited to see what the outcome of the fire would bring to the campus, while fervently calling and text messaging those back on campus.

First-year Carson Hensarling was studying in a corner on the top floor of the library when the fire began. He began to notice the smell of smoke and got up and walked around, finding that the smell was only coming from the area near his desk.

"I thought maybe my computer was on fire," said Hensarling. He did not know there was a fire until another student on the floor walked by and mentioned the evacuation.

"I looked up and the flames were huge," Hensarling said. "I was about the last one out of the building. Then I went straight to the gym."

The gym was organized into areas for each residence hall, for Montecito neighbors, and for the 140 prospective Preview Day students that had arrived earlier that day to spend the night and get to know the college.

For the first half of that night, Associate Dean of Residents Life Stu Cleek strongly suggested that individuals remain in the gym for their best safety during the fire and continued to give updates every couple of hours. Water and food were salvaged from the Dining Commons, as were fruit, pies, cookies, cheese, tuna, and bread.

For those inside the gym, information was equally limited, although student life staff and Westmont's Crisis Response Team attempted to keep the individuals inside the gym informed.

The biggest issue facing people in the gym was smoke that continued to seep through the cracks and vents of the gym, which left a poor air quality for the first half of the night. For young children and those with asthma, a wet handkerchief or surgeon's masks were their best remedies.

Once the reality of the potential danger became clearer, there were many different reactions. Some groups prayed, some cried, others stood around and asked questions, and people started taking out their guitars and drums to sing.

With small children running around, card games in session, and a movie night featuring The Incredibles and Elf, it was the ultimate campus sleepover and the sequel to last week's Midnight Madness.

On a whole, the sprawl of people across the gym floor remained relatively relaxed.

"I was amazed at how careful and sensitive people were to those who were in need," said third-year Trinity Hokama. Hokama is also a resident assistant in Armington Halls, a dorm located on lower campus. "Overall, I think it was the first time I've ever sensed community this strongly."

As the night progressed, more updates arrived. When students and community members awoke, they were told of the damage that Westmont had suffered that night.

The following buildings were reported to be damaged: the old math building, the physics buildings, Bauder Hall, two Quonset huts behind the library, and sections F, G, M, and S in Clark Halls. Clark F was the home of Clark Resident Director Mark McCormick, who has been with Westmont for over 30 years.

Also, 14 houses in Las Barancas, a housing community adjacent to the college campus that houses faculty and staff, were also lost.

Faculty and staff met to decide the next step in the process of recovering.

The primary issue Westmont will face in the coming days is how to address the housing needs of faculty and students who no longer have homes.

Tonight, the executive team for Westmont College will meet to discuss how to proceed with the academic year.

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