Topanga wildfire closes campus, causes gridlock

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University officials closed and later re-opened campus late last week because of air quality concerns caused by brush fires burning along the Los Angeles-Ventura county line.

Officials declared the campus officially closed Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. following a drop in air quality as winds turned, bringing ash and the smell of smoke through campus. By 5 a.m. the next morning, a university spokesperson announced the reopening of campus, citing improved overnight conditions and a more positive weather outlook.

The administration activated part of its Emergency Operations Center organizational structure Thursday, with CSUN Chief of Police Anne Glavin at the top. President Jolene Koester was out of state both Thursday and Friday, leaving Provost Harold Hellenbrand in charge.

Officials held meetings throughout Thursday, tracking the brush fires that moved from the Chatsworth area toward Ventura County, threatening the Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Simi Valley areas early Friday. By late Friday, the fires had charred more than 20,000 acres, one residence and several other structures in the area. A joint effort by more than 3,000 firefighters was able to keep the fire from reaching the 101 Freeway.

While CSUN remained open most of the day, officials closed campus and canceled evening classes at 5 p.m. CSUN police, with all officers on campus, went door-to-door and building-to-building to notify professors and students of the closure.

By 7 p.m., most of the campus had been emptied.

“We are pretty quiet right now,” said Christina Villalobos, CSUN police spokesperson, at around 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Spokespersons from the Department of Public Safety and the university encouraged students and employees to monitor the CSUN home page to check the status of Friday’s classes.

At approximately 5 a.m. Friday, CSUN spokesperson John Chandler stated in an e-mail that campus would re-open amid improved conditions.

“The university, meanwhile, is continuing to make scheduling accommodations for individual students and employees who may be unable to reach campus – because of personal circumstances related to the fires,” Chandler wrote in an e-mail.

As campus began to empty Thursday, police officers in patrol cars helped move students and employees away from the area.

A mass exodus of students came outside to find ash falling from the sky, and the new B3 parking structure clogged with exit traffic. Behind them, staff members posted signs about the canceled classes before locking the doors.

“We were trying to facilitate the exit the best we could, but with everybody leaving at the same time, trying to exit, it was difficult,” said Villalobos, adding that there was additional back up on city streets as people left campus.

Rania Rajah, junior mathematics major, sat in her car for an hour as traffic inched along in the B3 structure.

From around 5 p.m. through 6:30 p.m., cars lined Etiwanda Avenue all the way from Nordhoff Street past Prairie Street.

“For a good half hour, it just didn’t move,” Rajah said.

Audrey Stepania, senior psychology major, said she was stuck in her car on the fourth floor of the structure for 45 minutes trying to get out.

“I thought, I’m just wasting gas. I might as well stop and get out,” she said, eventually deciding to pull her car over until traffic cleared. She said her throat started to hurt after inhaling the smoke-infused air during her wait.

While waiting for the slow-moving traffic to subside, students Patrick Mushesian, Danielle Sherman and Orly Lender made dinner plans.

“If we survive this fire, I am going to take the girls out and treat them,” said Mushesian, senior history major. The three did not know each other prior to the traffic delay.

He said he took advantage of the traffic jam to get acquainted with other students who were also waiting around.

“I have to get to know (some) students before we burn to a crisp,” Mushesian said.

Air quality concerns were also the reason for the campus’ closure in Fall 2003, when fires in some of the same areas prompted a late afternoon closure as ashes and smoke filled the air.

During that fire, CSUN was asked about the possibility of becoming an evacuation center, but the request was never followed up on by emergency services personnel handling the blaze.

“We had a query about that, but it didn’t end up being pursued,” Chandler said, adding that CSUN did not receive such a request during last week’s fires.

According to Chief of Police Glavin, the university was kept up to speed through communication with the fire command post and through weather advisories from emergency personnel.

Ryan Denham and Veronica Rocha can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.