For the first time, Pierce College became a designated evacuation center for the Red Cross, accepting anyone seeking safety from the Ventura County fires, with the total death toll at two people in Southern California section and the fire continuing to blaze.
Residents have donated juices, energy beverages, protein bars, sandwiches and other snacks to evacuees, who have been staying in both the South and North Gyms since Friday. Those displaced have also received cots, blankets and a comfort kits filled with toiletries.
Jennifer Dutton, the acting shelter manager for the Pierce College shelter, explained the long hours that the Red Cross have been pouring into the relief effort.
“We want to make sure that all the people have a place to stay, place to sleep and meals,” Dutton said Friday. “We have been working since somewhere around 7 p.m. [Thursday] and here at Pierce since 1 a.m.”
Pierce College Interim President Larry Buckley received a call from the American Red Cross late Thursday night asking to use Pierce as an official shelter, and Buckley agreed. Buckley made clear that he wanted the community to know that Pierce is their partner.
“It feels like we are doing our responsibility,” Buckley said. “We’re not just a community college, we are this community’s college.”
Buckley remembered in the early hours of Friday, there was a woman watching the news on her iPad, and she noticed that it was her own house that was burning.
“I’m just happy that we could be here with her and for her in that moment. That’s what we are supposed to be doing,” Buckley said.
Pierce College students from the Veterinary Technology program volunteered to triage both the animals and the people that were on campus, making sure that no one inhaled too much smoke.
Candy Reyes, a veterinary student, expressed what it is like to use her education in a crisis situation.
“We just are trying to help with whoever needs assistance here, to make sure everyone’s lungs are okay,” Reyes said. “That’s why we are in this field, to help animals that are in need and it’s great to take the knowledge that we have learned here and put it to work.”
There was also Pierce College staff that chose to stay and assist with passing out supplies despite the campus closure.
Counselor Joseph Roberson reflected on lending a helping hand.
“I figured why go home and why not take an opportunity to contribute when I saw these humans suffering,” Roberson said. “It’s a blessing. I did it because it made me feel like I was contributing to the world.”
Evacuees have settled in and are waiting to find out if their street or home is the next to be affected by the fires.
Bob Teneyck was one of those who had to evacuate their homes in Calabasas around 2 a.m. with his family.
“We got a phone call. Calabasas alerted us with the call,” Teneyck said. “We just don’t know what is happening where we live. Hopefully everyone is going to be okay and we get to go home.”
Los Angele County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Rodrick Armalin gave evacuees an update Sunday evening of where the fire is currently, what areas were still under mandatory evacuation and what the conditions were looking like for classes begin Tuesday—and evacuees are now integrated with students.
“There’s a lot of firefighters up there, and there is a lot planes and aircrafts dropping water and the fight goes on,” Armalin said Monday evening. “Tomorrow we repopulate the campus with students so hopefully they show these folks some kindness and concern for their losses.”
Armalin mentioned that repopulation of Agoura Hills and Westlake Village north of the 101 Freeway have begun, but that everyone else is still under a mandatory evacuation. High winds were expected through Tuesday of up to 40 mph.
Armalin also announced that not only are physical needs being addressed, but mental needs as well. Trained specialists are available to offer psychological first aid for evacuees.
Maria Martinez is in charge of the mental wellness and psychological first aid, assisting those who are in emotional distress, as well as helping them gather as much information as possible.
“We see quite a bit of elderly that don’t know where they are or can’t remember their name, so we are here to help as well as follow up on mental health,” Martinez said. “This is what we do and what we are trained for. It’s overwhelming to see how many there are in need and it’s a great satisfaction to be able to help.”
Derek Hough, known from his work on Dancing with the Stars, came to Pierce Saturday afternoon and donated supplies to support those affected by the situation.
“We can see the smoke from our home,” Hough said. “It’s so close by, and it means a lot to be able to come out and support the community. What’s great to see is how many people came out and are supporting and helping out the community, just hoping for the safety of the firefighters and the people who are on the ground making it happen.”
Organizations such as the Operation Blankets of Love and Veterinary Angels Medical Center have been on campus since Friday to help the animals.
“We have popped up a mash veterinary hospital unit, we are offering free services to anyone who is affected by the fire, and we are doing everything from helping animals that were burned all the way down to a nail trim,” said Darlene Geekie, owner and executive director of Veterinary Angels. “That animal-human connection is so important, and that’s why I opened my non-profit, for these times of need. It’s really important to give back.”
Third Council District Councilmember Bob Blumenfield came to the campus Monday afternoon to show his support for those who are being affected by the fires. Blumenfield’s office helped organize a food, clothes and supplies drive.
“We wanted to do everything that we could to help people immediately, so we took that on in terms of getting donations together and making sure shelters have what they needed,” Blumenfield said. “My heart goes out to those dislocated and the trauma that they are undergoing.”
Blumenfield mentioned how he had visited the first responders and how we should all take a moment to appreciate the long hours and the bravery that they are exemplifying.
“I was just at the command center, and some of these guys have been working 40-50 hours in a row putting out this fire, and I’m happy I could play this supporting role,” Blumenfield said. “Right now we are still in the crisis phase, so I’m hoping we can soon be in the recovery stage.”
Since first opening its doors Friday, the Pierce College shelter has went from housing 480 evacuees to about 100. The fire has been amplified by the Santa Ana winds and the dry conditions that the area has been experiencing, with at least 96,314 acres destroyed from the fire that as of Tuesday afternoon was listed as 35 percent contained.
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency and he has requested federal funds to help those who were impacted by wildfires in California.