Each night this week, to commemorate the one year anniversary of the start to the Thomas Fire, our reporters and videographers are taking you back to the people and places impacted the most by that devastating blaze.
The fire that broke out in Ventura County and burned into Santa Barbara County held the ominous ranking for seven months as the largest wildfire in state history.
The rural campus of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula was near ground zero.
“When I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. in the morning that entire hillside was on fire,” said Dr. Michael McLean, President of Thomas Aquinas College.
McLean said the morning of December 5 was without a doubt one of the most “frightening experiences” of his life.
It was hours after the flames broke out the night before, on December 4.
“I have this vivid memory of the fire burning up from the west through the creek bed,” McLean said, as he looked out his office window and pointed to the fire-scarred hills behind campus.
Cell phone footage taken in the overnight hours appears apocalyptic; massive flames leaping out from all sides of the surrounding mountains, running up mature trees in whipping winds.
The fire that sparked less than a mile away had reached the rural, liberal arts college.
“The campus was surrounded by flames,” McLean said. “It had moved that quickly and had spread to the entire circumference of the campus.”
“It was raining fire,” Clark Tulberg said.
The Facilities Manager worked tirelessly with his team for hours putting out spot fires throughout campus.
“It wasn’t only little bits either,” Tulberg explained. “There were branches falling from the sky.”
Winds in the area were gusting at nearly 70 mph at the time.
“We climbed to the top of the (campus) tower and in the high winds, the tower was swaying a few feet,” Tulberg said.
McLean said an official evacuation was not ordered when the fire first broke out, however, fire crews made it clear from the onset that they wanted as many people off campus as soon as possible. Staff did not hesitate.
Within minutes, the plan was to get some 400 people off the campus through the only road in and out: Ojai Road. One direction led to safety, the other led to flames.
“The students, God bless ’em, did a wonderful job getting off campus,” McLean reflected. “Some of them without their shoes, cell phones, wallets,”
Hundreds of students and staff members safely made their way to Sacred Heart Church in Saticoy. Roughly a dozen others stayed behind.
“I decided to stay. I think it’s partly my background as a Coastguard officer and I sort of had in mind the idea that the captain stays with the ship,” McLean said.
“We decided that our area of refuge would be the sports field,” Tulberg said.
“Our facilities team turned on the sprinklers and we sat in our car for probably three to four hours while the fire burned ferociously around the campus. The wind was blowing every which way,” McLean said.
The entire time, firefighters and six engines fought back the flames from the field’s perimeter.
By sunrise that morning, through heavy smoke, not one life or building was lost; the campus had survived.
“The firefighters staged themselves perfectly,” McLean said. “They gauged the wind, they gauged the movement of the fire and they were in the right place at the right time.”
The campus did lose trees and landscaping. Incredibly, the only damage to a structure was a charred exterior door to a dorm room.
Those who stayed behind are convinced if the students had remained as well, firefighters would’ve been focused solely on saving lives and the campus would have burned.
For more information about Thomas Aquinas College, visit https://thomasaquinas.edu.