Westmont College Fire Update

Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, has been hit hard by a wildfire – they lost several academic buildings, along with some residence hall rooms, and several faculty homes that are on the campus.  (There are a number of photos on their web site.)  Westmost is also a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities along with Belhaven and 110 other Christian schools.

The story is all over the news, because lots of celebrities have homes near their campus, including Oprah.

We need to be praying for their campus, and I will be looking for ways we can help them…as so many helped us during huricanne Katrina.  Here is the lastest update from the Westmont College web site.

Update, 2:00 p.m., November 14, 2008

All Westmont College students, faculty, staff and guests are safe and well, and most buildings are intact less than 24 hours after a wildfire raced through campus. “We’re so thankful everyone is out of danger and that there were no injuries,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “But we’re deeply saddened that 15 of our faculty families — and one retired professor — have lost their homes. Given the strength of the winds and the fire, we’re amazed the damage isn’t greater.”

In addition to 14 homes in Las Barrancas (an area adjacent to campus where the college built 41 homes for professors), Westmont lost nine structures: four of the 17 buildings that make up Clark Halls (F, G, M and S), Bauder Hall, the physics building, the old math building and two Quonset huts. The latter three buildings were scheduled for demolition in the coming weeks to make way for new facilities on campus. While Westmont has lost trees and landscaped areas, the formal gardens below Kerrwood Hall were spared, as was the grove of Italian stone pines below the dining commons.

The fire started just before 6 p.m. above campus and by 6:15 p.m., the college’s Crisis Response Team had instructed students, faculty and staff to evacuate to the gym where they could be sheltered in place and protected from the fast-moving flames.
Students responded immediately, hurrying out of their rooms, leaving plates of food in the dining commons and dropping a Frisbee on the walkway to the gym. Their quick action insured everyone’s safety. “The students did amazingly well,” says Chris Call, vice president for administration, who led the crisis response Thursday evening. “They remained calm, ate a late-night snack and spent part of the evening watching the movie “The Incredibles.”

Westmont developed its crisis response plan years earlier in consultation with fire officials who recommended that students stay on campus in a protected building rather than flee in cars and be exposed to the dangers of a quickly burning fire. Although the flames came close to the gym, the students were safe inside, and the plan worked as expected.

Beginning early Friday morning when the direct threat had lessened, students were taken off campus. Many churches and local residents have generously opened their homes to both students and faculty. “We’re so grateful for the many offers of assistance that have poured in since the fire began,” Beebe says. “It’s so encouraging to receive that kind of support from the community.”

One Westmont alumna, Lesley Miller, has set up a Facebook group, Westmont College Prayer and Support for Tea Fire, which already has 318 members.

All students have found temporary housing, but about 40-50 lost their rooms and will need to make longer-term arrangements. Anyone willing to house a student for the rest of the fall semester and possibly during the spring can contact westmonthousinghelp@gmail.com.

President Beebe met with his executive team on campus Friday morning to assess the situation. How soon classes resume depends on a number of factors: there is no threat from the fire, power is restored on campus, buildings are clean and safe to enter, and faculty who lost their homes and/or offices can resume teaching. The executive team is meeting 8 p.m. Monday evening, Nov. 17, to make a decision about restarting classes, which will not begin any earlier than Wednesday, Nov. 19. Beebe will make an announcement Monday evening following this meeting about the class schedule. This information will be posted on the college’s Web site and on the emergency hotline, 1-888-565-7911.

About 140 prospective students arrived on campus Thursday for Preview Days to visit Westmont, attend classes and stay overnight in the residence halls. These guests joined the Westmont students in evacuating to the gym and witnessed first-hand how Westmont handles a crisis.

Clark Halls, built in 1965, includes 17 separate structures. It houses mostly first-year and transfer students. One of the buildings that burned is the home of the resident director and his family. About 40 or 50 students are affected by the fire and will need to be relocated.

Originally Bauder Hall was the carriage house for an estate the college purchased in the 1940s. The main house, which was used as a residence hall for men, burned during the 1964 Coyote Fire. Bauder was noted for its Tudor style and whimsical weather vane. It housed the psychology faculty and a classroom.

The physics building dates back to the Dwight Murphy estate Westmont acquired in 1945. Old photos of the college document its use as a garage for the Murphy family.

The old math building also belonged to the Murphy estate and has housed a variety of departments over the years, including math and biology. It was empty at the time of the fire awaiting demolition.

After World War II, Westmont bought a number of Quonset huts to use as temporary student housing. Two of them remained on campus and were burned; they too were scheduled for demolition.

Westmont will continue posting updates to its Web site, especially regarding the date classes will resume. All faculty, staff and students have been asked to stay away from campus until they are notified that it is safe to return.

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