California wildfire now largest in state history

In this Dec. 12, 2017, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, fire burns canyons and ridges above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon as the fight to contain a wildfire continues in Montecito, Calif. The huge wildfire that burned hundreds of homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties is now the largest in California's recorded history. State fire officials said Friday, Dec. 22, 2017, that the Thomas fire has scorched 273,400 acres, or about 427 square miles of coastal foothills and national forest. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

On a Saturday in early December, Sean Goodridge made his way through a black and smoldering landscape to return to his college campus.

Just a week before, Goodridge, of Cuba City, Wis., watched as flames bore down on Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula, Calif., where he is a student. He and his classmates rushed to leave campus as the blaze grew.

He returned to find his campus coated in soot but still standing.

“Everything around campus was torched,” he recalled. “But campus was fine, which is miraculous.”

Goodridge was among tens of thousands of people forced to evacuate the Thomas fire, which would eventually grow into the largest in the western state’s recorded history.

He said the experience has helped him put his priorities into perspective.

“I’d been sort of down a few weeks previously,” he said. “The semester had taken a toll on me. There was just an ennui I was in, and the fire snapped me out of it.”

EVACUATION

On the evening of Dec. 4, Goodridge and his classmates rushed outside to see flames on the other side of a hill along the edge of campus.

They made their way to the school’s commons, where the dean told them to go to their dorms to grab sleeping bags and pillows. Students then lined up their cars as they awaited evacuation orders.

As Goodridge and his classmates sped away from the small Catholic college, the fire started to encroach on the road leading to campus.

“I remember thinking that I could very well die that night,” he said.

He and his classmates took a longer route to avoid the fire, eventually arriving at the designated evacuation location at a church in nearby Ventura.

RETURN TO CAMPUS

Goodridge stayed with a friend and then a classmate’s relative until he could return to campus about a week later to retrieve what he would need to head home to Cuba City.

“The road from Santa Paula back to the campus had just been torched,” he said. “Everything was black and smoldering.”

The buildings on campus were sooty gray, and many trees looked like they had been damaged by smoke.

But the buildings looked largely undamaged, Goodridge said. That included a chapel where a statue of the Virgin Mary stood with her arms outstretched.

“Everything within the reach of her arms was still plush and green,” Goodridge said.

The Thomas fire would go on to burn more than 280,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It destroyed more than 1,000 structures and forced about 100,000 people from their homes.

As December came to a close, the fire had largely been contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Anne Forsyth, director of college relations at Thomas Aquinas College, said that other than the loss of a storage facility, the school’s buildings were left standing.

The school sustained a lot of smoke damage, and many trees around the perimeter of campus were heavily damaged, she said. Officials are raising money to cover the cost of the damage and other expenses associated with the fire.

“We’re just so grateful to have been spared,” Forsyth said.

Soon, Goodridge will return to Thomas Aquinas College, where he will take final exams that had to be rescheduled. He’ll also bring with him a new outlook.

“I’m hoping when I get back, I’m going to focus on the curriculum more and that I won’t be so depressed by petty misfortunes after what the fire did.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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