As Fires Rage, More Campuses Close

Across California, institutions are grappling with how best to provide for students and employees while combating power outages and poor air quality. For many, this is the new normal.

October 29, 2019
 
Jane Tyska / MediaNewsGroup / Mercury News via Getty Images
Firefighter in the Kincade fire

California’s Kincade fire -- and the state power company Pacific Gas & Electric’s subsequent controversial power shutoffs -- have led to some college campuses closing and others fearing damage.

Poor air quality, power outages and fire danger have led to several institutions in Northern California to restrict operations out of safety concerns -- while institutions in Southern California are facing similar closures due to another fire.

PG&E is conducting public safety power shutoffs when high winds and dry weather are forecasted in conjunction with fire danger.

Santa Rosa Junior College announced closures through Wednesday due to impacts from the Kincade fire such as ongoing evacuations and power outages. Santa Rosa is just south of the Kincade fire.

“We’re taking it day by day,” said President Frank Chong. “Everything is still up in the air.”

While Santa Rosa has power on its campus, the surrounding neighborhoods lack power. Santa Rosa remains closed while the community works on managing basic life.

The college has had a few close calls with the flames. Officials were concerned that the fire was heading toward the college’s public service center, and also toward the agriculture program’s farm, but fortunately firefighters were able to hold the line.

Santa Rosa's roughly 26,000 students commute in for classes.

“It is a very high stress level, high anxiety,” said Chong of the level of concern on campus. “People are living on eggshells. People are living without everyday conveniences like gas and electricity.”

Many of Santa Rosa's students have hourly jobs and are dealing with the practical pressure of missing hours at work, which they need to afford to stay in school.

When it reopens, the college will be offering mental health services and support groups for students and employees impacted the situation. Chong also anticipates fundraising for SRJC community members who lost their homes, as they did after a 2017 fire, when they raised over $600,000.

Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park closed through at least today. Paul Gullixson, associate vice president for strategic communications at Sonoma State, said the university is still grappling with everything going on regarding the fire.

“At this point we’re thankful we haven't had any direct fire risks to campus,” said Gullixson.

The area has seen severe winds and the fire north of them doubling in size. While not directly threatened by the fire, Sonoma State is impacted by the evacuation mandates and poor air quality.

“We are fortunate that we have not had significant physical damage,” Gullixson said. He noted that Sonoma State will need to do a lot of cleanup regarding landscaping due to the high winds.

In addition to canceling classes, Sonoma State evacuated those who live on campus. Around 3,000 students of 8,000 enrolled live on campus at Sonoma State and have had to find housing elsewhere. Gullixson said this was because the university’s water-pumping mechanism was impacted by the power outage, which meant their fire-suppression capabilities were restricted. Officials felt they had to vacate campus at that point and encouraged students to find alternative housing.

For those few dozen students who had not gone home or could not find housing nearby, Sonoma State provided space in their workforce housing facilities. Students have been there since Saturday, and they won’t be brought back to campus until it is confirmed that water-pumping capabilities have been restored.

“Campus halls are empty and doors are locked, and we are operating on a very skeletal crew for essential services,” said Gullixson of the situation since Saturday.

Gullixson said that going through this fire has been a “traumatic reminder” of the one the Sonoma State community endured two years ago.

Up north, Humboldt State University in Arcata will be closed through Tuesday, and classes are canceled due to a countywide power shutoff. Humboldt has created its own page on its website exclusively meant to update community members on the power outage situation. The university has around 7,000 students enrolled.

“Working in the dark,” said Frank Whitlatch, interim vice president for advancement, of the situation.

The university is far enough north of the fires that it is out of the way of danger, and it only occasionally experiences the smell of smoke. However, the university is on the same grid as some of the areas impacted by the fire danger and high winds. Because of that PG&E has cut power to the area.

Most of the university’s students have remained in their residence halls during the outage, and they do have water for showers and facilities.

Humboldt has opened the doors of its dining hall, the Jolly Giant Commons (the J), to students, staff, faculty and their families to eat for free during the shutoff.

The J has turned into a community center, with Whitlatch jokingly describing the parking lot on Monday morning as the busiest place in the county. On Sunday night, Whitlatch said, they served 1,500 people.

Looking ahead, Whitlatch said the institution is already planning on providing support services to the campus community for when power does come back on.

“We weren't thinking we were looking at four, five, six days of outages, but that's becoming the reality,” said Whitlatch.

Closer to the fires, San Francisco and the Bay Area have been dealing with heavy smoke.

On Monday an alert was issued for the air quality in the Bay Area. San Francisco State University’s main campus will remain open through this, but its Romberg Tiburon campus closed due to Marin County power outages.

Additionally, San Francisco State’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center activities and field trips were canceled.

San Francisco State provided faculty and students with masks for the poor air quality and advised sensitive groups to avoid outdoor activities.

The University of California, Berkeley, canceled its Monday daytime classes citing a PG&E power shutoff, after operating with limited power over the weekend.

Chinyere Oparah, provost and dean of faculty at Mills College in Oakland, said they can definitely smell the smoke where they are. The unhealthy air quality in the area has led to Mills canceling outdoor classes like physical education and closing the pool.

“I was thinking to myself, this has become the new normal, almost part of the academic year,” said Oparah of wildfire season.

Mills officials have encouraged students and those with respiratory issues to stay inside, and they have built flexibility into their academic calendar in case they need to add seat time to the semester like they’ve done in the past. Faculty members have been given suggestions and encouraged to work with students who’ve needed to stay home on a plan for success. Oparah noted that the increasing use of digital tools has made adaptability smoother.

Another fire farther south, the Getty fire, sits dangerously close to Los Angeles institutions, including the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California. UCLA announced Monday that it was canceling classes.

Mount Saint Mary’s University students were told to evacuate early Monday morning due to the closeness of the flames.

Mount Saint Mary’s Chalon campus was evacuated by the Los Angeles fire department, and classes were canceled on Monday and Tuesday.

Power outages earlier this month threatened research projects at the University of California, Berkeley, and again closed campuses at Mills, Santa Rosa, Humboldt and Sonoma State.

As campuses across the state feel varying degrees of challenges springing from the PG&E power outages, some are banding together to provide moral support and sympathy.

“We are just very appreciative of a lot of the support from our sister campuses,” said Gullixson, from Sonoma State. “Many campuses were supporting one another.”

Gullixson painted a picture of campuses coming together and supporting each other, saying that Chico State, San Francisco State and others have reached out offering their support. When California State Maritime Academy had a fire come very close to its campus, Sonoma State reached out in kind.

And these support networks will be increasingly needed as more fires continue to blaze.

“This just illustrates the need to address climate change. People are talking about the new normal, but I would encourage students and faculty not to accept this as the new normal. We have to be vigilant,” said Chong, of SRJC.

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