Thomas Fire Q&A

Q & A Update About Access to Campus, December 11, 9 a.m.

Westmont remains under mandatory evacuation for the Thomas Fire, and the campus is closed with all services discontinued. All faculty, staff and students have left. Students who need housing this week can contact Thomas Staffileno at tstaffileno@westmont.edu. Faculty and staff members have offered to host students, and plenty of rooms remain.

Do students have access to their rooms to gather belongings?

  • As long as the campus remains under mandatory evacuation, it will be closed and students may not return. Once the order is lifted, Westmont will announce when students may gather their belongings.

Can students authorize a parent and/or a designated friend to gather their belongings?

  • Students can email their resident director to authorize people to enter their rooms once the mandatory evacuation order is lifted.

Do students need to check out if they haven’t done so?

  • If students are moving out of their fall rooms, they need to check out when the campus reopens. If they can’t return to campus at that time or the campus remains closed, they should contact their resident director.

What about finals?

  • Each professor has decided how to hold finals and is working directly with students to make the appropriate arrangements. Students should direct any questions to their professors.

What is happening with scheduled athletic games on campus?

  • The women’s basketball game is still scheduled for December 20. We’ll post an update if that changes.

Will the Westmont gym be open to neighbors who need to evacuate?

  • The campus is closed, and no one is sheltering in the gym.

Q & A Update, December 10, 12:30 p.m.

At present, Westmont is not in an evacuation zone. As long as we are not under mandatory evacuation, the campus remains open. By tonight, all students will have alternative housing. We’ve encouraged them to leave to make sure everyone is safe. Faculty and staff are offering to host students who need a place to go. Students who need housing can contact Thomas Staffileno at tstaffileno@westmont.edu.

Will students have access to their rooms to gather belongings?

  • You are free to return to gather your belongings when the mandatory evacuation is lifted and Westmont reopens campus.

Can students authorize a parent and/or a designated friend to gather their belongings?

  • Students can email their resident director to authorize people to enter their rooms.

Do students need to check out if they haven’t done so?

  • If students are moving out of their fall rooms, they need to check out when the campus reopens. If they can’t return to campus at that time or the campus remains closed, they should contact their resident director.

Will the dining commons remain open?

  • We recommend that no students stay in their rooms on campus. We’re providing housing this week with faculty and staff, and there is plenty of room available. As the fire situation can change, we believe it’s best for students to stay off campus.

What is happening with scheduled athletic games on campus?

  • The women’s basketball game is still scheduled for December 20. We’ll post an update if that changes.
  • Note to residents near Westmont asking about shelter in the gym
  • The campus has been evacuated, and Westmont is close to the fire evacuation zone. Please follow all fire evacuations issued by fire department officials.

Does the Thomas Fire threaten Westmont?

  • The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management Thomas Fire update at 10 a.m. Saturday, December 9, states, “There is no immediate threat to the community of Montecito at this time.”
  • The college administration will continue to monitor the fire throughout the weekend.

What is the status of classes?

  • Westmont canceled classes Thursday and Friday, December 7-8, due to poor air quality in Santa Barbara.
  • We expect final exams to take place as scheduled beginning Tuesday, December 12.
  • Professors who rescheduled their Friday classes to Monday, December 11 have directly notified students of their plans.

Is the campus open?

  • The campus remains open, staff continue to work normal hours, and services on campus remain available to students.
  • Regular hours in the Dining Commons continue through Friday and resume on Monday, December 11. Limited hours will apply December 9 and 10.
  • The Westmont Library will hold regular hours unless there are fire-related staffing constraints and will be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 1 a.m.
  • The Westmont College Store is closed Saturday.
  • As is customary year-round, only dining, library and public safety services are available on Sunday.
  • All events scheduled on campus this weekend have been canceled.

What if someone’s home is threatened or burned?

  • Sadly, the fires have directly affected several in our community, and we’ll do all we can to support them. Caring for our faculty, staff and students remains an important priority. Residence Life is providing counseling to students as needed. Those directly affected by the fire can speak with their professors and supervisors about their family situation without concern for consequences.

How are you communicating with the public?

When will you evacuate the students off campus?

  • We will watch the fire closely and work with Santa Barbara County and local fire officials to evacuate in a timely fashion should that become necessary. We’ve made and confirmed prior arrangements with local churches to serve as evacuation sites for our students.
  • In the unlikely event the fire arrives more quickly than anticipated, we would shelter in our gym, which worked exceptionally well in the 2008 Tea Fire. Students were sequestered there within a half hour of the first report of the fire on the hills above us, and everyone remained safe.

What about smoke and air quality?

  • Westmont has made N95 particulate masks available to everyone on campus. These masks help with particles in the air while the air quality remains unfavorable, especially for people with breathing difficulties. Properly fitted, the mask filters at least 95 percent of airborne particles, so people using them effectively have very limited exposure. Masks remain available for pickup in the library, the Dining Commons, the gym and the Health Center.
  • We’ve installed HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) air scrubbers in the library and the Dining Commons to improve students’ safety and comfort, and we’ve opened the gym (which is equipped with these filters) to students at posted hours.
  • We encourage students to stay indoors as much as possible, wear a mask when outside, and refrain from exercising. We canceled all outdoor activities.
  • According to Dr. David Hernandez, Westmont’s physician, students with asthma and faculty and staff with breathing difficulties or heart disease should remain indoors as much as possible and wear a mask if they go outdoors. Healthy people will not suffer long-term health problems if they spend some time outside without a mask, but they may notice irritation in their lungs. This will clear within a few days. Repeated exposure over a long period of time can be harmful, but we don’t presently foresee that the smoke impacts will continue indefinitely.
  • If students have symptoms that may be related to exposure to smoke and soot, they should contact the Health Center during the week or residence life staff during the weekend or their personal medical provider. Symptoms include repeated coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, and nausea or unusual fatigue or lightheadedness.
  • Wildfires are unpredictable and unsettling. If students are feeling anxious, counselors are available to support and provide resources in this time. They may stop by the Counseling Center or call 565-6003 during the week and contact residence life staff members during the weekend.
  • Like everyone in our area, we face an exceptional situation. Buildings are not designed to be sealed against high levels of unavoidable smoke. We share your concern that everyone on campus is experiencing discomfort associated with this regional disaster.

Why should parents feel confident in the safety of their students?

  • We developed our wildfire safety plan, which includes sheltering-in-place as appropriate, in collaboration with local fire officials.
  • We hold an annual mobilization drill so employee responders practice and learn what to do in case of a fire 24/7. Students receive multiple messages throughout the year that they should go to the gym in case of wildfire. If there’s time to conduct a safe and orderly departure, we will do so from the gym. If fire officials say that’s not practical, we will shelter there. The gym is the place where we implement either the Go plan or the Stay plan, so students should always go there before leaving campus.
  • In 2008, the Tea Fire started directly above campus shortly after 5:30 p.m. By about 6 p.m., shelter preparations proceeded like clockwork and hundreds of students were inside the gym where they remained safe throughout the fire. In 2009, the Jesusita Fire started several miles away. As it approached the campus during the course of several days, we orchestrated the successful evacuation of all students.
  • To address the poor air quality which has occurred during the Thomas Fire, we distributed hundreds of N95 masks, canceled all outdoor activities, and created clean air space in the gym, the library and the Dining Commons to improve students’ safety and comfort.

Are the other colleges and universities in Santa Barbara closed?

  • Westmont canceled classes Thursday and Friday, and students were free to leave. As a residential campus, we remain open and are operating as normally as possible to serve the hundreds of students who remain on campus.
  • UCSB did not cancel classes until Thursday afternoon. Their recreation complex serves as an evacuation site for people displaced from Ventura.
  • SBCC closed their campus on Tuesday, December 5, because of power outages, resumed operations on Wednesday, December 6, and closed again on Thursday, December 7, citing poor air quality.  
  • On Tuesday and Wednesday, facing no added danger due to the Thomas Fire, Westmont took sensible precautions such as curtailing outdoor activities, handing out particulate masks, and providing updates on the fire.

How long do the masks remain effective?

  • No regulations require manufacturers to put an expiration date on masks, and they remain effective as long as the rubber band still stretches and the foam around the perimeter stays supple. The material in the mask filter lasts decades without degradation when stored properly, as our masks have been.
  • Some companies producing N95 masks put expiration dates on them, others do not. As long as there is no evident degradation of the materials, the expiration date represents a suggestion by the manufacturer.