Serving communities threatened by fires

Smoke rises over burned down homes in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo: AP)

The devastating wildfires of Northern California have prompted at least three community colleges to close through Saturday and Sunday, with a handful of other two-year colleges closing for a day because of poor air quality as a result of the fires.

Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) and Napa Valley College are closed through October 15. They will evaluate for possible closure on Monday and Tuesday. Salano Community College is closed through Saturday.

“The safety of our students, faculty, and staff are of utmost importance to SRJC,” said Frank Chong, the college’s superintendent/president. “Beyond that, we have already developed plans for helping those who need support to begin recovering from these tragic events, and those plans will continue to evolve.”

Nearly a dozen community colleges have been affected in some way by the fires burning across the state, with the hardest impact felt in the northern Bay Area, according to Paige Marlatt Dorr, spokesperson for the California Community Colleges. Some colleges have been directly threatened by advancing flames, and many communities remain in danger as firefighters struggle with the intensity and erratic nature of the blazes, she said.

Setting up assistance

More than 200 SRJC students, faculty and staff have lost their homes or have been displaced, according to the college. To help them, the SRJC Foundation has made an initial gift of $100,000 that it will begin to distribute as early as next week. Application details will be forthcoming. In addition, the foundation has set up a fire relief fund for donations.

Solano Community College and Napa Valley College (NVC) also are serving as evacuation centers. NVC’s shelter, located in the college gym, swelled overnight to 688 people Wednesday once a mandatory evacuation was issued to nearly Calistoga, according to news reports.

Other two-year colleges in the general area of fires are also taking precautions. Contra Costa College, Diablo Valley College, Los Medanos College and centers at Brentwood and San Ramon were closed Thursday due to air quality.

Triage center

In addition, SRJC has formed a fire response triage center at its student center, staffed by crisis counselors to help students and staff, who can also email and call the center, or tap online resources.

Many college employees have also offered space in their homes for faculty and staff displaced by the fires, and the college is working to find suitable matches.

The California Community Colleges — which is the largest system of higher education in the nation, comprising 114 colleges that serve 2.1 million students per year — is monitoring the situation.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to communities in Northern California as the region deals with devastating fires. Many community college students and staff are affected, and the focus of our colleges is on the safety of all residents, who are urged to follow the instructions of local emergency officials,” Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement. “The state chancellor’s office will work with colleges forced to cancel classes to minimize any impacts on academic calendars. These colleges will play important roles as the region recovers from this emergency and moves forward.”

Santa Rosa neighborhoods devastated by wildfires.
(Video: California Office of Emergency Services)

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.