USC students react to wildfire outbreaks

A Los Angeles Fire Air Operations Firehawk helicopter combats the Woolsey fire near Malibu. (Photo from the  Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Section Twitter)

Sophomore Maya Tribbitt’s hometown Thousand Oaks, Calif., is facing crisis after crisis.

On Thursday night, one day after a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill, Tribbitt heard about how the Woolsey fire was encroaching on her community. She called fellow USC student and Thousand Oaks resident Deeksha Marla to help cope with the back-to-back disasters.

“We went to the same high school, and her house was in the direct line of fire when it started,” Tribbitt said. “It was really hard for us to grapple with [the events] and explain how we were doing to other students who aren’t from California or from our area.”

The USC community has felt the effects of California’s raging wildfires since Thursday. California is the most represented state among the University’s undergraduate student population, according to USC Admission’s freshman student profiles. And some USC students hail from Thousand Oaks, a community about 40 miles north of South Los Angeles that is being threatened by the Woolsey fire. The Los Angeles Times reports that about 370 homes and businesses have been destroyed in the blaze, and around 57,000 structures are still at risk.

Northern California is also battling the Camp fire, the deadliest in state history.

“It’s really weird being away from home when something like this is happening because I haven’t talked in person with a single person from Thousand Oaks in the last week,” said Quinn Jones, a freshman majoring in arts, technology and the business of innovation. “I just felt like I really wanted to go home, so I could [be] surrounded by people that understand my problems.”

Through social media, students like Jones whose families affected by the fire have been able to stay connected, but some say they feel alienated by their peers as they try to comprehend the past week’s events.

Associate Vice Provost for Campus Support and Intervention Lynette Merriman sent an email to students with addresses in zip codes affected by the fires to offer emotional support services and crisis counselors on Friday.

“We are concerned about the effect the recent wildfires in California have had on members of the USC community,” the email read. “This can be a traumatic time for students, and we wanted to let you know that we are concerned about your well-being and the safety of your families.”

Tribbitt, who is majoring in international relations and journalism, said her family was forced to evacuate on Nov. 8 and that the condition of their home remains undetermined.

“My family just recently was allowed to go back,” Tribbitt said. “They went back [Sunday] and the air quality was so bad that they went back to their hotel … but we don’t think there’s any actual fire damage [to our home]. But my friends’ houses have burned down completely.”

Tribbitt’s father is a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where classes have been canceled through Thanksgiving break because of the Woolsey Fire.

Adam Omary, a freshman majoring in biophysics, said the fire reached a park near his Thousand Oaks home.

As a Southern California native, Omary and his family have experienced fires and evacuations before. His family was updating him as they moved in with friends in Santa Barbara these last few days.

“I knew they would be safe,” Omary said. “It’s nice knowing that I don’t have to be there to experience all of it because it’s pretty stressful, but it’s also weird sitting back and just watching and having to wonder what’s happening or where they are.”

Interim President Wanda Austin sent an email to the USC community on Monday, encouraging affected students to reach out to USC Support and Advocacy, the Center for Work and Family Life, Trojans Care for Trojans or other counseling services.

“The terribly destructive fires that have ravaged California this past week have directly and profoundly affected the USC community,” Austin wrote. “Some members of our community live in areas that have been evacuated, or have sustained tremendous damage, while many more have been feeling significant stress and worry about family members, loved ones, and friends who reside in these areas, and who now may be facing difficult recoveries.”

Andrea Klick, Mia Speier and Sasha Urban contributed to this report.