The Thomas Fire
destroyed 1,063 structures
and burned 281,893 acres,
an area larger than New York City.
Photo courtesy of Marissa Miller
The Thomas Fire was first reported on December 4, 2017 at 6:26 p.m. As a result of dry conditions and intense winds, what was at first a small brush fire quickly exploded in size, consuming nearly 300,000 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and becoming the largest wildfire in modern California history. In January 2018, while the area was recovering from the devastation of the fire, heavy rains fell on the freshly burned hills in Santa Barbara County, triggering massive mudslides and killing 21 people. The Antioch University Santa Barbara community was directly impacted by these disasters.
“I will never forget the sky that night,” says undergraduate student Marissa Miller. “First it was the deep blue of a clear December night. Then it was an ominous black. And finally, a sick gray-orange hemmed with red.”
It was this sick gray-orange sky that alerted her of the urgency to evacuate. “The fire spread really, really quickly. It was about a football field a minute,” she says. “We evacuated to my brother’s house and waited for news. Our house—our home—had burned to the ground.”
Dr. Barbara Lipinski, Provost of Antioch University Santa Barbara, was also forced to evacuate. “It was literally a firestorm that arrived in the middle of the night, with extreme scorching heat, something I have never experienced. There were shooting embers flying past me as I walked through the yard,” she says.
She immediately started to evacuate and gathered her pets into the car. “There was no time to pack so I rushed to the evacuation site at the fairgrounds,” Lipinski says. “When I came back to check on the house, three of my neighbors’ homes had burned to the ground.”
Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson, a faculty member in the clinical psychology master’s program, volunteered her skills as a therapist both on campus and in the community. She helped others who did not directly experience the disaster with the trauma they felt. “Secondary trauma is a very real thing,” Wolfson says. “We were all impacted and it’s affecting everyone.”
The day after the January mudslides, MBA student Stephanie Kaster, who works as a construction project manager at Casa Dorinda, a retirement community, hiked into the site, which was directly in the path of the debris flow.
“Outside of the property was ground zero,” Kaster says. “I was one of the first responders. There was so much mud. There were boulders, wrecked cars, debris everywhere.” Kaster helped evacuate more than 300 residents.
MBA student Christina Kelly, who also has a master’s in social work, also helped in the aftermath of the mudslides. She offered emotional support near a Red Cross evacuation shelter. “A thousand hugs were not enough,” she says. “I observed people coming to the shelter dazed and in disbelief. There were families who had nothing but a few belongings and clothes on their backs.”
Kelly was also part of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, which was instrumental in helping families dig out their homes following the mudslides. “Digging mud was therapeutic on so many levels.”
21 reported deaths
63 people hospitalized
2 people still missing
MBA student Anne Wells says, “I was in the planning and intelligence section of the response, feeding information to and from the Emergency Operations Director. The demands at all levels of the response were staggering and relentless.”
Wells says the disasters and subsequent recovery have been a powerful reminder. “It’s very easy to forget that it doesn’t take much to take away our sense of security and also how much capacity we have to rise above.”
What stood on our property was no longer recognizable as our home,” says Miller. “All that remained were the front porch, the chimney, and the bathtub and showers. Everything else, every item I had taken for granted, every item I passed by a thousand times, everything my family had worked so hard for was gone.”