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Lake Tahoe Community College President Grapples With Caldor Fire Effects As Fall Quarter Approaches

There are bushes with yellow and white flowers in the forefront, a brown building surrounded by tall trees in the middle ground, and an orange and gray plume of smoke in the background. The smoke is creating a sepia tint to the scene.
Katie Bailey
/
Lake Tahoe Community College
Roberta Mason Library at Lake Tahoe Community College located in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Aug. 17, 2021. Smoke can be seen from the Caldor Fire, which ignited on Aug. 14, 2021.

Lake Tahoe Community College is a small, rural school near the southeastern shore of Lake Tahoe. Each year it serves about 7,000 students from California and all corners of Nevada, and even some from abroad.

Over the last few weeks, South Lake Tahoe has had to contend with wildfire smoke and mandatory evacuation orders due to the Caldor Fire. One resident who is still evacuated is Lake Tahoe Community College President Jeff DeFranco, and he’s been trying to juggle getting the school ready for the first day of classes while away from campus. He shared his experience so far with KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck and said this is a start to the fall quarter like no other.

Jeff DeFranco: So since the week of August 23, we ended up having to actually close our physical campus that week due to severely deteriorating air quality issues. We were just offering services to students via virtual. Now, the good news is, during our COVID experience, we got very trained up with that. We were able to offer registration, and counseling, and support.

But then fast forward to Sunday, August 29, and Monday, August 30, that’s when the fire was really encroaching on our community. There was mass evacuations in the South Lake Tahoe region, and we ended up making the difficult decision to actually close all our campus services, virtual or physical, just because so many of our students and employees were being displaced, having to evacuate all over the West Coast, to friends and families houses, even to shelters. And so we were completely shut down that week.

Lucia Starbuck: So when is the first day of class and will that be in person?

DeFranco: We opened back up for virtual services on Tuesday, September 7. It’s currently our intent to bring back opening of our physical campus Monday, September 13, which would typically be the date of our fall quarter, but our fall quarter was actually pushed back a week just due to the impact by the fire. And the reason we pushed back is just so many employees and students were just disrupted by this experience that really impacted a significant element of our community. We needed just more time to get ready for the launch of our fall quarter and to provide students time to register and get reengaged.

Starbuck: How many of your students and staff had to leave their homes?

DeFranco: It’s probably about 1,000 students who are impacted by this between our face-to-face and local online students. When you look at our predominant face-to-face employee set, a vast majority of them live in the South Lake Tahoe region. So it’s estimated that 70 to 80 percent of our on-campus employees experienced some sort of evacuation order or warning.

Starbuck: Have you had the chance to chat with some of your staff? How are they feeling?

DeFranco: I think really a key time was that Monday night, August 30. That’s when the fire was coming off Echo Summit into Christmas Valley in the Meyers area. Many of us, myself included, were looking at the heat maps online that was looking like maybe our entire neighborhood may be engulfed in flames, including the neighborhood where my house is. And I know that night and that next day was very emotional for a lot of people I talked to, you know, not only concerned about our homes but just concerned about our community. Many of us that live in Tahoe live there because we love the natural environment. So definitely, there’s a sense of loss and a sense of mourning, but I think that’s also coupled with a sense of resilience.

Lucia Starbuck: And you haven’t been able to return home because the Meyers area is still under mandatory evacuation orders. You have the first day of class right around the corner. I mean, what’s been going through your mind?

DeFranco: The week leading up to the fire evacuation, I was working by day and by night to help make decisions for the college, meet with my board to get our academic calendar extended, things like that. And at the same time, after work in the evening, I was out in my yard with the chainsaw taking down limbs, and doing defensible space work, and raking up pine needles.

Just on a more personal note, I was spending a lot of time trying to attend to the needs of the college, but you know, personally concerned and worried about my home, and where are me and my kids gonna live if our house doesn’t make it. How will I do my job if I’m dealing with my house rebuild? So it definitely created a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety, and I’m trying to be resilient and get over that hump, but I think many of us are still carrying some of the anxiety that went with living through a crisis like this.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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