On the night of Tuesday, December 5, I wasn’t sitting in my dorm room studying for upcoming finals or down at the sports field kicking around a soccer ball with my friends.
Instead, I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of my uncle’s Honda crying my eyes out. Just a few hours earlier, I had found out that my dorm had burned down in what is now known as the Thomas Fire.
On December 4, I went to school. I sat through all my classes, anxious for the day to end. I sent funny pictures to my friends and read my latest library book. I ate lunch and went to soccer practice, mentally adding up the hours until the weekend.
Nothing seemed off about that day. It was just a normal Monday. Not until after dinner did anything out of the ordinary occur.
A group of girls stood huddled together at the top of the stairs, blankets wrapped around their shoulders and slippers warming their feet. They were staring at a light glowing above the mountains in the distance.
“I hope it doesn’t come near us,” one girl cried. “I don’t want all my stuff to burn down.”
I scoffed. Hasn’t anyone seen a brush fire before? They rarely jump across concrete, we’re fine.
All the chatter stopped as the dorm parents walk up the stairs, the girls parting like the Red Sea. There was to be a dorm meeting in ten minutes, they announced.
At the meeting, Cindy Clouse, our math teacher and dorm parent, explained that the teachers met and didn’t see any threat. But, she recommended packing a bag, just in case.
“And don’t forget to turn in your phones,” Jennifer Weiss, our other math teacher and dorm parent, exclaimed, reminding the girls it was time to study.
All the girls sighed, the room filling with dread. It’s hard to tell if the dread was because of the possible evacuation or study hall.
We were left in limbo. Everyone around me was panicking, even though there wasn’t an immediate threat.
Ms. Weiss went down the halls to reassure us that we were safe, looking in on all of our rooms.
But, 45 minutes later, we all heard a call down the wing: we were evacuating at 8:30 pm; pack for the night, meet in the Black Hole.
I couldn’t believe it.
I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life, so I’ve seen my fair share of forest fires. A few summers ago, there was one across the street from my house and my family posed for pictures as it blazed behind us.
I just sat in the laundry room and waited for my favorite sweatpants to dry just enough to wear. I didn’t pack any pictures, jewelry, or gifts. Plus, we were told not to pack more than our camping bags could hold or there wouldn’t be enough space on the bus.
Besides, I would see all my stuff again tomorrow. I would fold my wrinkly clothes, study for my history quiz, and fall asleep to a Christmas movie.
I pushed open the heavy door at the end of the hall, and was immediately met with a cold gush of air. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a massive swarm of girls. They all sat on top of their bags, which were bursting at the seams with everything they managed to cram in.
The wind was blowing so hard I almost fell over, and as I made my way to the courtyard to get on the bus, I teetered as my heavy bag threw me off my balance.
Within minutes, the boys came, filling the gaps in between the groups of girls. Headmaster Craig Floyd stood on top of a planter and announced that we were going to the Lower Campus. He assured us not to worry, as the teachers had everything under control.
The girls were first to get on the bus. We pushed our way through the crowd of people and scrambled to find seats next to our friends.
We all sat in relative silence. It was as if the words were being pulled out of us, looming in the air. There were only a few conversations and most stopped as the bus began rolling down the hill.
Truthfully, I shouldn’t say rolling. It was barreling. The wind made the bus shake violently as we traversed down the usual twists and turns towards the Lower Campus.
Every now and then, I heard panicked whispers or shouts of girls worrying for their horses or rooms.
It was the first time that night that I began to worry. I held onto my roommate Maya Mullins’ hand for dear life and she squeezed mine right back.
We were all so nervous that when it came time to unload at Lower, it was a free-for-all towards the door.
At the door of the Greenberg Activity Center, all my dorm parents from Lower were standing to greet us. They provided some hard-to-find comfort and put me at ease.
The girls and guys were soon separated. They followed the Lower dorm parents to their respective dorms for the night. I stayed in the coveted sleepover room with four of my friends.
The next few hours were filled with anxious text messages and phone calls. We were trying to find out any news about Upper. We checked live Twitter updates for news on the surrounding area.
We only stopped when we heard a screech from outside, followed by “The fire is so big!” We opened the blinds to our window and my heart stopped. The glow of the fire was just over the mountains towards Ventura. It was coming towards us.
Right then, my friend, Megan Manion, got a text from her dad, saying he was in the area. He had had a job nearby and wanted to pick her up. She told him that she wanted to take the four of us and we started contacting our parents, and within the hour we were driving down the 33, the five of us were crammed into Megan’s dad’s pickup, holding on to all of our items that could fly out of the open back.
On both sides of the freeway, there were flames. It felt like we were driving through an apocalypse. Even after all this time, seeing the sheer destruction of those flames brings me chills. That night, I was restless, only getting a few hours of sleep.
The next day, the five of us sat in Megan’s living room with the TV on the news channel, religiously checking for updates on our phones. Later, we went out to lunch, trying to distract ourselves from the uneasiness of not knowing what was happening with our home.
But, that night, we got the world-shattering message that the Girls’ Dorm and the Science and Technology building burnt down. I couldn’t breathe. Hot, salty tears starting streaming down my pale, shocked face.
I didn’t think I could lose the place that housed all my memories. The Sunday afternoons in my freshman year when I’d watch musicals with Ms. Whipple. The Friday nights staying up with my roommate, Maya, watching stupid YouTube videos and bingeing Netflix TV shows. The hours of card games in the back patio.
That night, I went home. When I saw my uncle, I hugged him like my life depended on it. In that moment, my family was the only home I had left.
The next few days were a blur. By the end of the week, all the dormers were gone from Lower, back home to rebuild. The month of break was spent buying all that I had lost and visiting with my family, a slow creep towards normalcy.
On January 7, I made my way back to school. I felt sick to my stomach as I stepped into the back seat of my car. I didn’t want to face the damage, the rubble left behind by the fire, still not fully contained, that took the homes of so many.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I saw the brown, ashy valley next to Thomas Aquinas College, where the fire initially broke out. My heart broke when I saw the once rolling, luscious fields, now burnt to a crisp.
But, my mood changed when I got a call from my best friend, Lucy. She told me that her, Maya, and I were going to be roommates.
The month of built-up anticipation washed away. That giddy feeling I used to get when I passed Boccali’s Pizza & Pasta was still there.
When I passed the massive, green Upper gates, I didn’t feel sadness. I felt happy, something that was a long time coming. There were teachers and students swarming all around the courtyard of the Village, the new girls’ dorms.
The most important thing about OVS is the relentlessly united community. The same sense of family that I was once loved was still there. All the memories that I thought I’d lost are all still here.
For even though the quaint, brick building that held my life for the past two and a half years is gone, the relationships and laughs I had there will never burn away.Share