Napa resident Phil Barber has two daughters attending UCLA and a third living in Los Angeles.
Barber, sports columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, had seen firsthand the devastation caused by October’s wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties. Now, fire and smoke threatened his children – although the Skirball Fire’s burn area was a few miles away, the flames and smoke appeared to be right on top of the famous Westwood campus.
Like other parents, Barber searched for news while trying to come up with plans of action and texting often with his daughters.
“My wife and I both are UCLA alumni,” he said. “She grew up in Southern California and we used to live there, so we have a whole network of friends. Our oldest daughter is totally on call to get her sisters if she needs to. But we’ve been talking to people to come up with a Plan B and Plan C if they had to get out.”
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Despite the freeway closure and heavy smoke, UCLA stayed open Wednesday, then canceled classes Thursday although staff was still expected at work. The university will be fully open Friday, it announced late Thursday.
Parents, students and alumni can stay updated via the websites Bruins Safe Online, bso.ucla.edu, and UCLA Newsroom, newsroom.ucla.edu. UCLA students and staff can sign up for text alerts via the Bruin Alert System.
More than 44,000 students attend UCLA. The Skirball Fire, which started early Wednesday morning, torched more than 475 acres on the hillsides just north of campus. The evacuation zone stretched within two miles of the university.
Posting on social media, students at UCLA felt scared, frustrated and confused. Some wrote about watching their roommates leave on the eve of Finals Week, which starts Saturday, or trying to make it to class in a surgical mask.
“Some people can’t breathe,” posted student Astrid Wang. “They are in pain.”
More than 7,000 students signed an online letter, asking that classes be canceled and students not be penalized for staying home.
“I believe the school could have handled this situation better,” posted Wanda He, a UCLA student from Elk Grove. “I heard too many students expressing frustration of having to make the decision between health and academics since UCLA did not promptly cancel class.”
Divya Sharma, a senior from Simi Valley and part of UCLA’s undergraduate student council, organized a “Stay-In Protest” to urge the university administration to come up with a better emergency preparedness plan.
“We need to have criteria for when classes are canceled,” said Sharma by phone. “How many students couldn’t make it to campus (Wednesday) because of the 405 shutdown? (Including staff and faculty), we have 59,000 commuters to campus. It’s very frustrating actually. You’re worried about the fire and your finals. How am I supposed to go back and study?”
While Sharma dealt with issues on campus, his thoughts were at home in Ventura County, impacted by its own 90,000-acre wildfire.
“Ventura County is just devastated,” he said. “I have a lot of very close family friends who lost everything.”