Evidence of recovery and construction appears everywhere at Westmont. Fencing sets off sites of new buildings and areas destroyed in November’s Tea Fire. The beeping of backing trucks and rattling drone of excavators echo throughout campus. The rhythmic pounding of concrete being pumped deep into the soil penetrates nearby buildings. These sights and sounds document progress in restoring fire-ravaged areas and adding essential new facilities in keeping with the campus Master Plan.
Workers armed with heavy machinery are excavating sites for Adams Center for the Visual Arts, Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics, the central plant and the campus road. As three-level structures, Adams Center and Winter Hall require extensive excavation to fit naturally into the hillside. The new observatory situated southeast of Carr Field, is the first structure to rise from the ground. Workers have poured its concrete base, and the powerful Keck Telescope will be relocated there this summer.
Groundskeepers have begun restoring the charred campus, planting trees and replacing other greenery as screening.“We’ve cleared out most of the burned vegetation,” says Randy Jones, director of campus planning. “It’s been great to see oak trees recover and the green come out.” Fortunately, landscapers have saved many of the native, fire-tolerant plants. A number of large oak trees removed from construction sites have been relocated along the western edge of campus, which suffered significant fire damage.
The loss of vegetation at the beginning of the rainy season posed a challenge. Since the fire, Montecito has received more than eight inches of rain. To prevent flooding and mud slides, workers installed jute netting along many Westmont hillsides and placed straw wattles near riparian areas and structures to control erosion. The rain turned several construction sites into muddy swimming pools, but it hasn’t slowed work significantly.
Westmont has contracted with Don Erickson ’76 to expedite reconstruction of three Clark Halls buildings and 14 Las Barrancas faculty homes leveled in the blaze. Since the foundation and walls of Clark M and S are sound, crews will use the existing walls to rebuild. Student life officials worked with architect Peter J. Ehlen to improve the floor plans and functionality of the residences. Clark F, which housed Resident Director Mark McCormick and his family, will be rebuilt to better accommodate the family and improve the cottage as a gathering space for students. The Clark buildings should be finished before the start of the fall 2009 semester.
Trustees decided not to rebuild Bauder Hall or the physics building for now as the departments they housed, psychology and physics, will move into Winter Hall when it’s completed in 2010. The site of Bauder has become a temporary parking lot, and construction materials are being stored where the physics building once stood.
The burnt out Las Barrancas homes have been demolished, leaving only the concrete foundations and pads. The architectural team has submitted drawings to the city and received permits. The Las Barrancas Home Owners Association hopes that construction will begin in April. The floor plans remain the same, but the roofs and windows will be revised to meet current fire codes. The home owners association hired general contractor Parton-Edwards Construction to rebuild the homes; Westmont alumni Lindsay Parton ’76 and Mark Edwards ’76 founded the company. They hope to complete work in about eight months.
The need to prepare for future fires led Westmont to purchase a 350-gallon, water-pumper truck to better protect the shelter-in-place program and enhance the ability to suppress spot fires. Officials paid $28,000 for the truck estimated to be worth about $100,000. “We’re not planning on being a firefighting force and will not be involved in battling structural fires,” says Troy Harris, director of risk management. “But the Tea Fire showed us that we need to have the ability to deliver water from a safe distance. Our ambitions are understandably narrow.”
The shelter-in-place plan worked well, protecting about 800 Westmont students, faculty, staff and neighbors inside Murchison Gym and keeping them off neighborhood roads while residents were evacuating. However, the fire burned down a ravine of eucalyptus trees, cutting off faculty, staff and neighbors from the gym. Flames also threatened the gym’s generator, forcing physical plant workers to battle the blaze with garden hoses and fire extinguishers.
“Our physical plant workers were heroes,” says Thomas Beveridge, director of the physical plant. “They protected the gym by keeping the flames at bay with what little they had, but we don’t want to be in that position again.”
“The Montecito Fire Department did a tremendous job protecting the community during the Tea Fire,” Harris says. “We understand that their primary concern in the early hours of a fire is evacuating residents and keeping people safe.”
“Regardless of how often we use the pumper truck, every piece of fire equipment is an asset to the community,” says Tom Bauer, director of public safety.