California fires force USC students and families out of their homes

USC student evacuees share their stories.

As many USC students are forced to evacuate their homes to escape nearby fires, they have to decide what is necessary to take with them and what they can leave behind. So far, more than 250,000 people have been evacuated in southern California. USC senior Piper Pugh packed years' worth of journals, and sophomore Rachel Jacobson took baby pictures and family photo albums. Annenberg grad student Rachel Swimmer had a different experience: the 29-year-old loaded two 70-pound pigs, three chickens and two dogs into her car on Friday and drove away from the flames.

Swimmer, who studies specialized journalism, commutes about 45 minutes each day from her new house in Topanga, Calif. to USC's campus. She moved into her first home in Topanga Canyon about six months ago and just finished decorating it.

According to Swimmer, Topanga is a tight-knit community in which many residents live "off the grid" without cell phones or internet access. While this lifestyle usually adds to the area's charm, it caused confusion for Swimmer leading up to the evacuation. On Thursday, the grad student received emails suggesting residents prep for evacuation. On Friday, she didn't hear anything until her dog walker texted her telling her to evacuate. After reading more about the mandatory evacuation in the Nextdoor app, which keeps many communities like Topanga up-to-date on the area's news and events, Swimmer's first thought was saving her pets.

"I was focused on getting [my animals] in the car and getting some food for all of them," Swimmer said. She also packed her laptop for school, an outfit she could wear and a photo of her dad, who passed away.

Swimmer drove her Escalade in bumper-to-bumper traffic to her grandma's house three hours away. Swimmer, her pigs Harley and Quinn, her dogs Cinderella and Bambi, and her chickens Belle, Ariel and Jasmine all wound up in Apple Valley because Swimmer didn't want to leave the animals in a shelter. She hopes to move back Thursday, but she has doubts.

"Nature is fierce," she said. "We rely on the state to take care of it, but it's out of everyone's control…. It's just devastating that this is something that's affecting so many people."

Swimmer is far from the only USC student to get evacuated. California residents make up the largest proportion of USC students, with 39 percent of 2018's admitted class coming from California.

More than 250,000 people have been evacuated from the Woolsey fire in Los Angeles  and Ventura counties in southern California, and many have been evacuated from the Camp Fire in Northern California. The statewide death toll has hit 31, with the majority of deaths up north.

"It's just been news after news of hearing friends and family members who've lost their homes," said Nicole Waldman, a USC student and a resident of Westlake Village. Despite the physical damage, she is optimistic that her community will stand strong.

"It has honestly been pretty inspiring," she said. "Everyone has had incredible attitudes about the whole thing, which is crazy to me considering what's going on."

Harrison Stutz, a senior studying business administration and cinematic arts, remained at USC as his dad, step mom and two dogs were evacuated from their Malibu home.

"It's a feeling of immense helplessness when [my family] started evacuating, and I couldn't even drive down there if I wanted to," Stutz said. "There's only so much I can do about a fire; it's a waiting game."

Another USC senior, Piper Pugh, drove home to Agoura Hills to help her little sisters pack despite advisories.

"I was driving the normal path I do when I go to my [dad's] house, and everywhere around me was red. The sky was turning red," Pugh said. "It was really, really surreal because I could see the exits I go by every day and where my cousins live, and the side of the road was on fire."

Rachel Jacobson, a sophomore in the Marshall school, thought for days that her house had completely caught fire.

"Our neighbors sent us a picture of their house, and it was just ashes – absolutely burnt and gone," she said. Miraculously, her house only suffered remote damage.

"Everything is burnt around my house, but my house isn't," Jacobson said. "I don't know how to explain it other than luck."

Interim President Wanda Austin sent out a university-wide message expressing concern for any students impacted by the fires.

"We are here for each other, and come together as a community as we face adversity," she wrote. "I am continually heartened to see the compassion of our Trojan Family, and the healing power of its bonds."

Austin's email also included contact information for resources including crisis support, the Center for Work and Family Life, counseling services and Trojans Care for Trojans.

Officials said in a press conference Monday that the fire is now 20 percent contained, but it won't be fully contained before Nov. 17.