Thomas Aquinas College president: Calif. fires shouldn’t affect Northfield campus move

  • Thomas Aquinas College seal.

  • Flames from the Thomas fire rise in the distance behind St. Cecilia Hall at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. prompting an evacuation on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. —Contributed photo

  • Flames from the Thomas fire rise in the distance behind the Saints Peter and Paul Residence Hall at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., prompting an evacuation on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. —Contributed photo

  • Flames from the Thomas fire rise in the distance behind the athletic fields at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., prompting an evacuation on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. —Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Thursday, December 14, 2017

The president of Thomas Aquinas College — which hopes to open a campus in Northfield next year — recalls standing on the athletic field of his college’s Santa Paula, Calif., campus last week as a fiery blaze ate up the land and crept within 20 feet of campus buildings.

“Monday night and Tuesday morning, it was pretty frightening,” President Michael McLean said, referring to Dec. 4 and 5. “The fire was very powerful and burned right down to the perimeter of the campus. ... We were pretty certain we were going to lose some buildings or at least suffer some damage.”

Remarkably, McLean said, firefighters saved the buildings from being overtaken by the “Thomas fire” sweeping over southern California. McLean believes the fire was so named because it started about a half-mile from the Thomas Aquinas College campus. By the afternoon of Dec. 5, it burned on to the west, McLean said, allowing him to breathe a sigh of relief.

The narrowly averted disaster won’t slow plans to operate a second campus off the north end of Main Street in Northfield, he said as he discussed the close call at his California campus.

“One of the back doors of one of our residence halls was scorched, that’s how close it got and the fire was hot enough,” McLean said. “The firefighters did a tremendous job.”

McLean and five other staff members stayed for the entire time the fire was near the campus. Still without internet and phone service on Wednesday, McLean was only able to get cell phone reception from a campus parking lot.

What about Northfield?

Following the news about the California fires, Northfield residents may be wondering how the situation might affect Thomas Aquinas College’s plans to start a Northfield branch, which it acquired in May. But McLean said the college remains as driven as ever.

“It certainly doesn’t affect our motivation to expand in New England,” he said. “It’s still a ‘go’ as far as we’re concerned, assuming we can get the (state) approval.”

The college needs approval from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education before it can begin teaching students, with McLean hoping to start the first classes in fall 2018. McLean said the campus had its site review in August, and has been corresponding with the department about its report. He said the department needs to hold a public hearing about allowing a new college to open, and the Board of Higher Education needs to take a formal vote.

The board’s next meeting, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s website, is on Jan. 23, and McLean hopes to be put on the agenda in time. If not, the next meeting is scheduled for March 6.

McLean believes the March meeting would be the latest the college could get approval and still plan to open in 2018. The college’s contingency plan, should it not get approval by March, would involve delaying a year.

“We’re still hopeful for 2018, and we’re going on that assumption right now,” McLean said.

“The motivation here remains strong,” he went on. “There continues to be interest in the project and support for the project from our friends and benefactors, and prospective students.”

McLean joked that the change in weather alone is an inviting prospect.

“A campus in New England where it rains, and fires are very rare, looks increasingly attractive right now,” he said.


In response to the fire, McLean said the California campus was evacuated on Dec. 4, which would have marked the last week of classes. Exams, which were scheduled for this week, have been postponed until the first week of the spring semester in January, and students will be allowed back early to prepare. McLean said faculty will need to adjust their curriculums to account for one less week of instruction.

Roads to the campus are now open, McLean said, and the students were allowed to return to campus to retrieve their textbooks and personal items.

Still, McLean said the vegetation on the campus’ perimeter has been burned, and a large number of damaged trees will need to be removed. In the temporary absence of electricity, the food service department had to discard a lot of food, he added.

McLean said the assessment of damage is ongoing, and he hopes insurance will help with coverage. He suspects the campus will be largely back to normal when students return in January.

“The campus is perfectly safe, and once a fire like this burns through, we’re probably out of fire danger for years to come,” he said. “The fuels that feed these fires have all been burned.”

“But it’ll take a long time for Ventura County as a whole to recover from this,” McLean added. “A lot of homes were lost. The infrastructure took a lot of damage.”

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

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