The Cali-Colgate Connection

Tory Glerum

As rain poured down from the cloudy skies of Hamilton last week, wind-fueled wildfires raged across Southern California, destroying houses, burning up land and driving thousands of people out of their homes, including the family of at least one Colgate student.

According to, the fires that erupted on Sunday, October 21 and have yet to be completely contained by firefighters are the worst California has seen since 2003, when 22 people were killed and over 3,000 homes were lost. Over the course of last week, seven people were killed, 2,000 homes were destroyed, and 640,000 people were evacuated in San Diego County. Schools and businesses were closed down, and roads and major highways blocked. Property damage is estimated at over $1 billion.

One of the families evacuated early Monday morning was that of senior Jon Freeberg, a resident of Rancho Santa Fe, which is about 25 minutes north of San Diego.

“I got a phone call from one of my friends telling me about the evacuations, and when I called my family, they were packing,” Freeberg said. “They went to a friend’s house farther north where multiple families were staying.”

Freeberg said that although he missed ten full days of school during the 2003 wildfires, this was the first time his family had been evacuated.

“I was taken aback and scared,” Freeberg said. “But my friends here have been cooperative and supportive. They are willing to do anything they can.”

Junior Matt Bloch, also from Rancho Santa Fe, said the house his family moved from three months ago burned down. It was the only one on the street completely destroyed.

“It is sad because we know the family who owned it,” Bloch said.

However, Bloch is thankful that his own family was not directly affected by the fires, which only clipped the south and west edges of his new town.

“It is eerie that we still could have been living in our old house,” Bloch said. “It could have been our house, our things and our memories destroyed.”

Although Bloch said he has heard news of the devastation, he will not understand the full extent of it until he returns home.

“The Southern California economy took several months, even years to recover after the 2003 fires,” Bloch said. “I can only imagine this will be similar.”

Assistant Dean of Admission and the Regional Dean from Southern California Cara Share, witnessed the fires firsthand.

“I was at a beach in La Hoya on Sunday, and I saw a yellowy haze,” Share said. “By the afternoon, I could smell smoke, and ash was falling all over my car. People started fleeing, but at points you couldn’t even see the cars because the smoke was so thick.”

Sophomore Dana Epsten, who until recently lived in North County, about 20 miles from where the fires hit, said she knows three people whose houses were burned down. She recalled the fires of 2003, when the friend’s house she was staying at got evacuated.

“You grab photo albums, important documents, and you run,” Epsten said. “It is a surreal experience. When you go outside, you can’t breathe. It looks like the world is ending.”

Epsten said the news of last week’s fires didn’t immediately register with her. “It was the middle of nowhere that was burning at first,” Epsten said. “Then my dad told me the winds were at 60 miles per hour, and I thought, ‘Oh God, it’s happening again.'”

Alumnus Jeff Follert, ’77, who now resides in Malibu, California, was in Colorado when he received a text message from his son at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 21, reading “BIG fire, really close, what should we take for you, catch the first flight you can.” After driving four hours through a snowstorm, catching a standby flight to Los Angeles, and hitting two major roadblocks, he arrived home to find the power gone. Thankfully, the fire had missed their house by 300 yards.

“The fire came down the mountain and passed us,” Follert said. “We are very fortunate.”

Follert said that destruction in Malibu was not nearly as devastating as in 2000, when homes in San Diego County were ravaged.

Thankfully, as the winds have lessened and the temperatures cooled, firefighters have been able to take control of many of the fires, according to Yahoo. Evacuation orders have been lifted from many areas and California residents are being allowed to return home.

Freeberg said his family has moved back into their Rancho Santa Fe residence and has been declared out of the danger zone.

Colgate students interested in organizing drives or efforts for families devastated by the fires should contact the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) Director Ingrid Hale.

“We will happily work with current COVE teams or develop new initiatives to best respond to communities in need,” Hale said.