Community colleges were crucial during the Thomas Fire

The Thomas Fire burned the main office at the KOA Ventura Ranch Campground near Steckel Park.
The Thomas Fire burned the main office at the KOA Ventura Ranch Campground near Steckel Park.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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National community college leaders are telling campuses nationwide that California community colleges’ response to the recent wildfires is an example of best practices.

“I think people are beginning to realize that these are natural, go-to institutions in times of crisis,” said Noah Brown, CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees.

His group published a newsletter this month that described how administrators, faculty, and staff at Napa Valley College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Ventura College, and other campuses sprang into action during the fires and worked with the surrounding communities to help in the recovery effort.

“People look at higher ed as the ivory tower. What happened at these colleges: the deans were sweeping the floor. Staff, faculty, and administrators were boxing up things. They were doing everything and anything,” said Norma Goldstein, a director at the association who wrote the newsletter about the colleges.

As California officials warn that fires may become more frequent and natural disasters and emergencies such as shootings affect communities nationwide, the review of California colleges’ disaster readiness is a good readiness template, college officials said, for other campuses to follow.

California’s 114 community college campuses form a much larger public higher education system than the California State University and the University of California. Some community college officials argue that their campuses are better poised to help neighborhoods because their campuses enroll a larger proportion of students from areas near their campuses and therefore have stronger community ties.

“Our community college has been here for over 100 years. We’re very much closely tied to this community,” said Santa Barbara City College spokeswoman Luz Reyes-Martin.

She formed part of a roughly ten-member group of campus administrators that sprang into action as the Thomas Fire crawled toward Santa Barbara last month.

“We have someone who becomes our operations chief, a logistics chief, everything from HR to communications, to incident command,” she said “we’ve been in kind of emergency mode for at least the last several weeks."

The group often met daily in a campus conference room and decided to close the campus during the fire because of the air quality. It also opened campus buildings to evacuees and firefighters and found space on campus last week for an elementary school that could not hold classes at its campus because of mandatory evacuations. Santa Barbara City College's foundation has stepped in too and given cash grants to students and employees affected by the fires.

Reyes-Martin and the Association of Community College Trustees said the most important takeaway from California colleges’ experience during the fires and their aftermath is that it paid off to send employees to emergency preparedness trainings and create plans that spell out clear roles for administrators and staff in times of crisis.