The impact of the blazes, with all their danger and unpredictability, could be felt at universities across California. The fires and related power outages forced closures, halted research and upended plans.
University officials are grappling with shifting and disparate problems, as they weigh the effect on vulnerable students, critical research, hospitals and employees. The issues, ranging from annoyances to emergencies, include smoke and ash in the air, power outages, road closures, evacuations of nearby communities and, in some places, approaching flames and destruction. Some employees have lost their homes. Some students are traumatized.
“It’s a very stressful time, very high anxiety,” said Frank Chong, president of Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California.
“Two years ago, the winds came in and then they were gone and the devastation was there,” Chong said of the historic 2017 fires. “This time around, the winds keep coming back.”
At Mount St. Mary’s, the danger was direct and very close.
Several people complained on social media that even when flames were rising behind their dorms and ash was falling on campus, the university still had not sent out an alert to evacuate.
University spokeswoman Debbie Ream said that within three minutes of receiving an evacuation notice from the Los Angeles Fire Department, school officials made the decision to evacuate the Chalon Campus. The private liberal arts school for women has about 450 students living on its campus, not far from the spot where the Getty Fire flared.
Ream said the alert was sent at 2:49 a.m. and that by about 3:30 a.m., the campus had been evacuated. She said some students drove away, and the university provided shuttles to help others. She said one group of students evacuated by foot, under the direction of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Some of those students were picked up and transported by college personnel or by emergency vehicles.
Ream said some students went to homes nearby, and some were housed on the school’s Doheny Campus near downtown Los Angeles, moving into empty dorm rooms or sharing space with students there.
At one point, the fire had surrounded Mount St. Mary’s, but the damage to the campus has been minimal, Ream said.
Classes resumed Tuesday morning at the University of California at Los Angeles, after a day of cancellations, updates and alerts.
In Northern California, the Kincade Fire is raging, and power has been shut off in some areas to minimize risk.
The University of California at Berkeley resumed normal operations Tuesday, after Pacific Gas & Electric restored power to campus Monday afternoon. Classes had been canceled Monday.
Humboldt State University shut down its campus and canceled classes through Tuesday.
Santa Rosa Junior College canceled classes through Friday.
The wind keeps shifting, Chong said. Sometimes, he can feel the gusts even far from the mountaintops and canyons where the fierce winds swirl, and the burnt-smoke smell comes and goes.
People are walking around with heavy face masks and flashlights, said Paul Gullixson, spokesman for Sonoma State University. “That’s the symbol of Sonoma County right now.”
Sonoma State is about 15 miles south of the fire, but concerns about air quality, power and evacuations were serious enough to close the campus all week. Classes were canceled, and residence halls were locked, leaving more than 3,000 students to find other places to stay.
They have some generators keeping temperatures stable in laboratories and providing minimal lighting, Gullixson said. But this power outage took out a pumping system that is relied on for water for bathrooms and, crucially, fire suppression.
About 80 of the school’s students, faculty and staff members lost their homes in the 2017 fire, Gullixson said, including the university’s president. They are beginning a relief effort and ensuring counselors will be on hand when campus reopens.
Many students had already been displaced. Austin Leonard, a junior studying neuroscience at Sonoma State, heard police sirens at 4 a.m. Sunday at his family’s home in Santa Rosa.
He could see a tree shaking as they evacuated, and he could feel the wind that wasn’t the usual cold, crisp breeze from the coast. “It was the same in 2017,” he said. “A kind of eerie, dry, hollow wind that came through.”
They had already been warned, so he had packed some things. He didn’t take a lot, but he made sure to bring his school backpack: He wants to go to medical school.
“I want to keep my 4.0,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for that. I didn’t want to have another fire throw a wrench in my academic work.”
Students do not stop thinking about school even in an emergency, he said. When everyone is worrying about the present, students can’t stop worrying about the future, too.