By Diego R. Serrano
In the past few months, Southern California has seen drastic changes in climate and temperature, as gusty winds and a dry environment engulfed the Santa Clarita Valley. Along with these changes came two devastating fires: The Saddleridge Fire and the Tick Fire.
Residents of the valley are no strangers to wildfires, with as many as 40,000 people evacuated on October 24 due to several thousand acres being burned. The vast majority of residents were taken to various evacuation centers away from the fire.
One of these evacuation centers was College of the Canyons: a local community college accommodating thousands of students each year.
The decision to hold the center at COC was made by the American Red Cross organization, which immediately provided the necessary emergency and disaster assistance to those affected by the fire.
The evacuation center was held in the East Physical Education building on the Valencia campus of COC, as it accommodated many of the residents that were forced to leave their homes due to the fast-moving Tick Fire. Residents who were evacuated to the college campus stayed overnight as firefighters continued to battle the blaze over the next several days.
When it comes to natural disasters such as wildfires, COC provides the space necessary for those being evacuated, while the American Red Cross provides all the supplies and emergency equipment.
“It’s an amazing organization, because they’re so good at this and they’re self-contained. They roll in with everything,” says COC PIO Eric Harnish. “They have cots, blankets, bottled water and food. Pretty much anything you need to house people temporarily.”
The evacuation center housed between 600 and 700 people on the night the fire broke out. As the fire continued, the college expanded the accommodations into other buildings of the campus. Three of these expansions included the cafeteria, Hasley and Pico Canyon Hall.
The expansions for housing accommodations greatly improved the overall process, as the number of people moving into the evacuation center increased over time. With 153 acres of space, expansion of the center helped tremendously.
“We have space as well as facilities, and we’re able to make alternative arrangements for classes that can be impacted by an event like this,” Harnish said. “Whenever the American Red Cross calls, our first answer tends to be ‘yes’, assuming our facilities are available.”
Location was a key component of the evacuation center, as it brought the people who fled their residences to a safer distance away from the fire. The center held people inside to avoid exposure of smoke and ash from the Tick Fire.
The evacuation center was a major step in improving safety during the fire, especially since the college was able to use its facilities to contain a large number of people.
“It was helpful because it was far away from the fire, and our facilities are able to handle the number of people who were displaced,” student Eric Rodgers said. “But it wasn’t too far where people would have to drive miles to get to it. It was in close proximity.”
College of the Canyons has now been providing service and opportunities to students for 50 years. In the wake of a devastating fire season for Southern California, the college set the standard for helping out the Santa Clarita Valley by providing useful service and accommodations to everyone affected.
“We have always had a history of opening our doors and welcoming the community in times of need,” Harnish said. “We are a community college, and that extends beyond just providing education. We always try to help any way we can.”