While many campuses across the country are experiencing snowfall, the Recreation Center at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) is dusted with ash instead. Due to the Thomas Fire originating a little over 30 miles south of campus in Ventura, California, the UCSB Department of Recreation’s facility was declared a Red Cross evacuation shelter by Santa Barbara County.
The decision to make the Rec Cen a Red Cross evacuation shelter was made following the start of the Thomas Fire the morning of December 5.
“The Recreation Center is already designated as an evacuation shelter so we always know we are on the list of potential facilities that [Santa Barbara County] may want to use,” says Cathy Czuleger, Senior Associate Director at UCSB Department of Recreation.
Once the department agreed to accommodate relief services, the Red Cross arrived onsite within four hours and the first evacuees arrived that night. Although the Red Cross manages the shelter operation, the UCSB Department of Recreation staff was responsible for keeping the facilities open and monitoring access.
“We became a 24-hour facility, and that’s not our norm,” says Cathy. “So, it’s a challenge and a drain on both professional and student staff.”
Air quality is a significant concern
As the Thomas Fire continued to grow, the air quality conditions in Santa Barbara worsened. A call was made to Direct Relief requesting face masks. The face masks were passed out to students, faculty, and staff who were in need.
“This fire in particular is affecting our air quality because the winds are blowing towards us,” says Andrew Yorkey, Safety Coordinator at the UCSB Department of Recreation. “A lot of the buildings that are catching on fire are older buildings so there might be asbestos in the air that is being released from these building.”
Andrew is one of the staff members at UCSB Department of Recreation monitoring the air quality daily. All staff are required to wear the face masks when outside.
The air quality continued to worsen throughout the week. Many students, faculty, and staff were also experiencing anxiety as the fire, now reaching LA County, was forcing them—along with family and friends—to evacuate. This included some professional staff at the UCSB Department of Recreation who had to temporarily evacuate their homes.
Power outages were also occurring throughout Santa Barbara and on campus, making it challenging for students to study during dead week. These factors led UCSB to cancel finals. In an email sent out by UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, it was announced that finals would be rescheduled to take place the week of January 8.
After news about finals being cancelled reached the UCSB Department of Recreation, it chose to close the Recreation Center starting Monday, December 11 until further notice. The evacuation shelter remained open and evacuees continued to arrive.
Currently, there are about 70 evacuees staying at the Recreation Center. Cots are set up on the Multi-Activity Court (MAC) and evacuees have access to showers in the locker rooms. Donations of food and clothing line the walls. Some evacuees staying at the Recreation Center have lost everything to the fire.
One evacuee came to the evacuation shelter with “nothing except her dogs and the clothes on her back,” says Andrew. The woman’s car broke down as she was fleeing the fire and she was found on the side of the road.
Professional and student staff members of the UCSB Department of Recreation continue to work around the clock to monitor the facilities and ensure a safe and comfortable space for evacuees.
We have had incredible student and professional staff involvement,” says Cathy. “Everyone has been willing to come in, work extra shifts, and just help out wherever they can.”
As of December 15, the Thomas Fire is 30% contained. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations are set in place under 20 miles from the UCSB campus.