WNCC was prepared for fire’s worst
On behalf of the students and faculty of Western Nevada Community College, I want to express my sincere gratitude for the heroic firefighting efforts that saved our Carson City campus last week during the Waterfall fire, and to those throughout the college, community and state who supported WNCC.
Not once but twice last week, firefighters saved the Carson City campus using every means available. With fire trucks, heavy equipment and air support, they kept flames away from the Cedar Building which houses the college’s computer center, nursing and engineering labs, from the Reynolds Center for Technology, and from our newest community jewel, the Jack C. Davis Observatory.
Watching one tree after another on the rim of our city’s hills exploding into fire on Wednesday night was at once an awesome and a heartbreaking experience. Many of our own staff were also facing evacuation from their homes, and at least two of the WNCC family lost homes.
The college has collaborated with the community over the years to prepare for fire and other emergencies. In just the past few months, we partnered with the Carson City Fire Department to create fire buffers around the campus perimeter. The Carson City School District also has agreed for several years to assist the Child Development Center in transporting children to an off-campus location, in the event of an emergency evacuation.
When we were put to the test, college administrators and staff also rose to the challenge. On Wednesday afternoon, we reviewed our contingency plan in case the fire came to the campus. At 2:15 p.m., we deployed our campus evacuation plan. That included safeguarding all student and employee data by downloading to the system, pulling tape backups off campus, notifying parents to pick up children at the child-care center, getting students and employees off campus, assigning individuals to assure all the buildings were vacated, communicating to the public, and meeting off campus throughout the rest of the week to assess events. By the time the fire department ordered an evacuation at 3:30 p.m., the college was nearly shut down and buildings were being locked.
We decided on Thursday morning to offer the community what help we could, and to open our buildings for use by firefighters. I drove over to the Sierra Front command at Carson Middle School and made an offer of campus facilities to the logistics captain. They eventually placed their bulldozer/earthmoving equipment on campus. We were pleased to have them there! We also made the Bristlecone and Aspen buildings and the new Dini Student Center available to off-duty firefighters. We kept the air conditioners running in those buildings and the showers, TV lounges, and restrooms offered some respite to hot and tired firefighters during the crisis.
We also decided to do one other thing that morning, and it proved to be very important. We decided to take some money out of our reserves to buy our own “brush hog” that day. This is the device that goes on the back of a tractor that is capable of eating up full size sage and bitter root bushes and turning them into ground mulch. The efforts paid off. When I walked around the observatory on Saturday, there were burned out areas right up to the edge of the landscaping and all along the planetary walkway. Also, fire had been inside the instrumentation yard where the radio dish, heliostat, weather station and Web Cam are all located. By a miracle, and thanks to college staff and other volunteers, the only loss we suffered was a few landscape plants.
WNCC was supported by so many community members and agencies that it is difficult not to forget someone. Among those who helped:
Carson City Fire Department, Nevada Division of Forestry, Firefighters from throughout Nevada and the West, city of Carson. State of Nevada. Carson City School District, local media, Western Nevada Astronomical Society, neighbors of the college who pitched in to clear brush around the observatory, UNR buildings and ground and security personnel and Bully’s Sports Bar.
Throughout this crisis, our colleagues at the University and Community College System, and at UNR, TMCC and CCSN were also wonderful, offering help at every turn. I am particularly indebted to 10 young men from UNR who came down to the college as volunteers on Friday morning to clear the remaining brush out of the observatory instrumentation yard. Had the wind turned against us again on Friday afternoon, we think we could have withstood another run by the fire partially because of their important work.
I talked later with some firemen who were using the college facilities. They said that all of Carson City had been wonderful – hospitable and grateful people. And how fitting. These firefighters saved our college, our homes and businesses, and likely, many lives.
The campus has now reopened, and we are replacing air filters and washing walls and windows in our buildings. We were spared a great tragedy, and we are sincerely grateful.
Our community’s hills will probably not look the same in my lifetime. However, nobody lost his or her life, and most lost property was likely adequately insured. So when I look at the hillside scars, I’ll think not so much about the days and nights of fear and tragedy. I’ll think about what a community determined to survive can do, when we all hang together.
Carol Lucey is president of Western Nevada Community College.