Ten years after the Tea Fire in the Montecito hills, Westmont College continues to refine and improve its evacuation and emergency plans.
The school was in the eye of the flames and had some damage but no one was hurt.
“We were prepared and we knew exactly what steps to take,” said Director of Residence Life Shannon Balram.
Students and their parents are made aware of the emergency plans when school begins. It includes email, text and phone messages.
Changes are often made as an event unfolds. “With any sort of natural disaster those plans can change hour by hour by hour,” said Balram. The school also has an annual “Ready” day.
Anyone here on November 13, 2008 will not forget the firestorm that came from the nearby hills and the efforts to get the students to a safe location, the school gym.
“What we had with the Tea Fire, the fire was right on top of us – real quick – with 60 mile an hour winds,” said Information Officer Scott Craig who was there to see the disaster unfold. “The winds were howling. The embers were coming completely horizontal and sticking in a lot of the trees that were here.”
Over the next five days over 200 homes and other structures were burned to the ground or damaged. The fire burned in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Hundreds of firefighters were called to the scene. Aerial water drops on the flames took place day and night.
These days the campus has an all volunteer fire brigade that will stay on site to put out small fire starts. “We have two water tankers that can hold lots of water and it has big hoses. Those guys are there to help protect structures and to put out spot fires,” said Craig.
The campus not only puts out timely information but has a spot for parents to see updates on the school website.
“The fundamentals of that plan isn’t changing but the refining of that is always happening each and every year so that we can execute it well,” said Balram.
During the Thomas fire the campus had several evacuation alerts. That was followed by a vicious January storm that sent mud and boulders out of the fire damaged hills into homes and streets not far from the campus. More alerts and updates were also frequently issues.
Last weekend Pepperdine University took some criticism for keeping students on campus during a raging wildland fire. The school said it was the safest place and all their needs could be met compared to leaving the area with thousands of evacuees.
Westmont also says it recommends students stay where they can be cared for and accounted for, but they are not required to stay during an emergency.