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Remembering the Thomas Fire: “All the Things of this World Will Pass Away”

Posted: June 7, 2018

Note: Last Friday, Los Padres National Forest officials declared the Thomas Fire extinguished, with no hotspots detected in the last two months. In honor of this good news, over the next several days the College will publish reflective stories about the fire, all of which appeared in the Thomas Fire Commemorative Edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter (receive a free subscription.)


Students Share their Memories of the Thomas Fire

Thomas Baker (’20) Amanda Van Der Linden (’18) Clare Tabera (’18)
Thomas Baker (’20) Amanda Van Der Linden (’18) Clare Tabera (’18)


“A Lot to be Grateful For”
By Thomas Baker (’20)

Evacuees: Joe Daly (’19), Ryan Kielas (’19), Erica Johnson (’21), Maria Gilicinski (’19), Claire Kielas, Thomas Baker (’20), and Matthew Van Hecke (’18)Evacuees: Joe Daly (’19), Ryan Kielas (’19), Erica Johnson (’21), Maria Gilicinski (’19), Claire Kielas, Thomas Baker (’20), and Matthew Van Hecke (’18)I first saw the fire shortly after I finished eating. I was sitting at a table in the Commons when I saw people running to look out the windows. At first I suspected it was nothing of interest, and didn’t bother getting up. But as more and more people gathered, my curiosity won me over, and I hurried to the window. I knew what was happening as soon as I saw the orange smoke. I started to wonder whether the fire department would get to campus soon enough to save the College, and whether there were enough cars to evacuate everybody.

With the courier vehicles and students’ cars, we all evacuated to a church in Ventura. From there, I joined a small group that went to stay with the family of Ryan Kielas (’19) in Ventura. At this point, everything seemed safe. We were playing a card game when one of the girls in my group looked out the window.

“Hey guys,” she said, “take a look outside!”

All along the horizon, clouds of glowing, orange smoke rose into the sky. It didn’t look good. We thought we would wait and see how it progressed, but it only got worse with time. When we started to see towering flames, we decided to leave. The Kielas family had friends living 50 miles south in Malibu, so we all went to stay with them. We arrived a little after midnight. Even from so far away, we could still see a faint orange glow to the north.

The next day we saw on the news that homes in Ventura were burning, and that the fire was still raging with 0 percent containment. Later that day, it was at 1 percent. (I think that was because the flames had burned all the way to the ocean.) We kept checking for updates on the state of the College and texting our friends to make sure they were safe. A lot of rumors were going around, and someone mistakenly reported that our chaplain’s house had burned down. It was hard to tell the facts from fiction.

After a couple of days, when the Kielas’ neighborhood was no longer in danger, we all headed back. The air quality was so bad that we needed masks, but thankfully their house was unaffected. We had heard by this time that the College was safe, so our main remaining concern became studying for finals. The news that exams were canceled came soon after that, and on Saturday the campus opened for students to retrieve their belongings. I then contacted the airline and had my reservation for my flight home to Colorado switched to that evening. I arrived home that night, safe and with a crazy story to share!

My experience of the Thomas Fire gave me a lot to be grateful for. I’m grateful for the hospitality of the families in whose houses I stayed. I’m grateful for the friends with whom I spent the days of evacuation. I’m grateful for the bravery of the firefighters who fought to protect the College and stop the fire. But most of all, I’m grateful for God’s divine providence, through which the students and the College were protected during such a disaster. May God continue to protect and bless Thomas Aquinas College as He has always done!


“God Indeed Brings Good Out of Evil”
By Amanda Van Der Linden (’18)

I was in the Chapel, sitting in the choir loft for Benediction, when I heard the bells begin to toll. My first thought was, “That’s strange … I thought we only rang the Chapel bells before Mass. Maybe there’s a new policy?”

Seconds later, I remembered. Ringing the bells is also the signal that there is an emergency. I went down the stairs and talked to the student who was doing the ringing; he told me that there was a fire threatening campus and that everyone was to meet in St. Joseph Commons. Coming out of the Chapel, I could see the flames coming over the hill.

It was so sudden — one moment I’m spending some time in the Chapel before seminar, and the next I’m running to the Commons, running to my dorm to grab a few essentials (including my laptop with all my thesis work on it and a sleeping bag), and then anxiously awaiting to hear the evacuation plan.

Providentially, I happened to be borrowing my mom’s car at that time because I was planning to drive to a job interview that weekend a few towns over. Because of the fire, I never did end up going to that interview, but I was very grateful to have my own transportation for the evacuation and to be able to help some of my fellow students make it off campus safely.

Once my three passengers and I arrived at the designated meeting spot — Sacred Heart Church in Ventura — we split up to travel to the homes of evacuation host families. I was grouped with five freshmen, including Elanor Piquette (’21), whose family graciously hosted us at their home in Camarillo.

At the Piquette home: Therese Evich (’21), Elanor Piquette (’21), Elayne Piquette, Michael Scriber (’21), Madalyn Piquette, Charles Piquette, Owen Piquette, Anna Asper (’21), Amanda Van Der Linden (’18), Garin Ballard (’21) At the Piquette home: Therese Evich (’21), Elanor Piquette (’21), Elayne Piquette, Michael Scriber (’21), Madalyn Piquette, Charles Piquette, Owen Piquette, Anna Asper (’21), Amanda Van Der Linden (’18), Garin Ballard (’21)

From Monday evening until I drove home on Wednesday, our time was spent in uncertainty of what would come next. We checked the CalFire website for updates on the Thomas Fire, and we checked the TAC Facebook page and website for updates on the state of our campus and if/when classes would resume. We contacted family and friends to inform them of our situation. But the time was also filled with little joys and the opportunity to get to know each other and our host family better. We went shopping for essentials; attended morning Mass; prayed for the safety of the campus, the surrounding residences, and the firefighters; attempted to do some homework; played board games; and even had brownies and ice cream!

Although it was a frightening experience to have come so close to having our beloved campus (and many of our earthly belongings) consumed in flames and to see the devastation that the fire wrought on the surrounding communities, God indeed brings good out of evil. This disaster prompted many prayers and provided abundant opportunities for people to show Christian charity to those affected by the fire.

I would like to say thank you to all those who have supported and prayed for our college community during that trying time. I am so happy that we were able to return to TAC for classes this semester and that I will have the blessing of graduating from our (mostly) unharmed campus this May.


Practicing Surrender
By Clare Tabera (’18)

John Herald (’19) and Clare Tabera (’18) with some of the chickens she kept in the campus aviaryJohn Herald (’19) and Clare Tabera (’18) with some of the chickens she kept in the campus aviaryThroughout the fire, I stayed with five friends at my family’s home in Huntington Beach, California. We spent the week watching the news, cooking, attempting to study — and worrying about the 30-plus chickens I kept in the College’s aviary on the lower campus.

I first began keeping chickens about two years ago. Michael Dufresne (’19) had brought five hens there, and I ended up visiting them more often than he did, so I offered to buy them. From there the flock grew. Sometimes I would get some of the chicks hatched from leftover eggs in the Freshman Lab. A couple of times the chickens would hatch some of their own chicks. But mostly I got them from the feed store in Santa Paula. I loved going down to the aviary nearly every day to feed them and collect eggs, which I turned into a small business by selling to faculty and students.

At some point, Thomas Becher (’19), Thomas Macik (’19), and Michael pitched in and got two goats to keep next to the chickens. One of the goats gave birth, and then there were a total of four of these adorable, hilarious animals scampering around. They liked climbing on everything and figuring out every possible way to break into the chicken feed, leading Thomas B. to build more and ever-stronger fences.

When we hurriedly left campus the night of the evacuation, we had to leave the animals behind, figuring that if the fire were to get to them, it would have to go through the campus first, which of course would have been far more devastating. But on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, we got a text informing us that the chickens had all died. Every newspaper spoke of how the only damage to campus was of surrounding “brush and trees,” so I did not realize until I returned on Saturday how incinerated the aviary would be. There was almost nothing left but the metal framing and a storage can. My chickens were unrecognizable piles of charcoal.

Shortly before receiving the news about my chickens, I got the message that one of the goats had died and the other two were released into the wild. They have not been found.

As sad as it was to lose this lovely place with these sweet animals, I felt that I could not complain too much after having seen whole neighborhoods burning to the ground on TV. It is times like these when we are reminded that all the things of this world will pass away. It is good to practice surrendering all things to God now.

Laura Berquist

“The education at Thomas Aquinas College makes men free, able to direct their own lives, and that of the community.”

– Laura Berquist (’75)

Founding Director of Mother of Divine Grace School; Author, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum

“I admire this college and your faithfulness to the Church’s mission for higher education and the New Evangelization.”

– The Most Rev. José H. Gomez

Archbishop of Los Angeles