Student Experiences in the Aftermath of the Thomas Fire

Lauren Marnel Shores
Campus Beat Reporter

Almost two weeks after the national park service fully contained the Thomas Fire, students have returned from their extended breaks after returning to the University of California, Santa Barbara to take their finals.

The Thomas Fire, which steadily grew to be the largest fire in California history, created a period of confusion at the end of fall quarter when classes were eventually cancelled to discourage prolonged exposure to the poor air quality. While some students were able to return home early in comfort, evacuating on such short notice became a complicated endeavor for many international and out of state students.

The administration’s actions were partly in result of discussions between Associated Students’ President Hieu Le and Chancellor Yang. Within these conversations, Le drew support from a petition with 11,000 signatures asking that the administration reassess its priorities between students’ health and grades.

Over the following weekend, two more petitions circled the community  gathering a total of 13,000 signatures combined  asking that finals be officially postponed until after the break.

Despite administration’s reluctance, another series of power outages, a false evacuation notice meant for Carpenteria, and continually deteriorating air quality ultimately led to the postponement of finals.

While some students had evacuated within an hour of the Chancellor’s official memo being sent out, rearranging travel plans proved to be much more difficult for students not living in California.

“That was horrifying,” stated Tal Richter, a second year English major who lives in Tennessee. “With the fires and being alone, I have no family in this state. All my friends are either in Santa Barbara or in Oxnard, which is still in the fire.”

Richter described the ordeal of changing her travel plans as “stressful” because it was just her and her father working together to find a new flight while everyone else was evacuating.

“My parents were a little worried about where I was going to go,” said Richter. “When they heard me talking about evacuation plans to go north  my flight was in one week to Los Angeles  they didn’t want me going north because I needed to get to LAX. They had to shove travel plans ahead of time, and it was really hard to get a bus ticket and reschedule the flight.”

An international student, first year Rahul Varghese, expressed his gratitude that the fire didn’t affect his travel plans, explaining how he was able to take an Amtrak out of Santa Barbara to leave at the same time as everyone else.  

“I thought it would be a small fire,” said Rahul Varghese, an electrical engineering major from the United Arab Emirates. “It turned out to be a really big fire and it turned out to affect the people at UCSB. I didn’t expect it to expand a lot.”

While many students scrambled to find new travel arrangements, David Qi, a first year electrical engineering major from Nanjing, China, chose to retain his booked flight. Qi said he chose to remain in the dorms and continue studying for finals until he could leave when he had originally planned.

Qi stated that although many of his friends from China returned home early, he chose to stay because the air quality didn’t bother him. “It reminds me of China,” Qi joked in reference to seeing everyone wearing the masks.

Furthermore, Qi expressed his surprise that finals were cancelled due to the poor air quality, saying that such an occurrence would have been much more rare in China. “I never noticed that you took the air pollution so seriously,” said Qi.

“I’m impressed the way they handled things,” Qi said. “As an international student I have to get a signature in order to get back here. Usually it takes about a week. On the Monday, they just signed it right away. They told people, ‘go home as soon as possible.’”

Other students felt more conflicted about the administration’s response: “I feel [the administration] handled it as best they could,” stated Richter. “It was an emergency situation, it has never happened before. They didn’t handle it well, but there was an effort put forth on their part, and I can appreciate the work they did.”