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Campus Shows Its Heart in Wake of San Diego Wildfires
Faculty, Students and Staff Rally to Help Fire Victims

Ioana Patringenaru | November 5, 2007

Brandon Opliger, a political science major at UCSD, had decided to take the fall quarter off to work for the U.S. Forest Service up in Southwest Riverside County. Then on Oct. 21, a call came to his fire station near Temecula. His crew was needed on the Witch Fire. Now.

San Diego Wildfires
Brandon Opliger with his firefighting gear.

He and four other firefighters got into their engine and rushed to the scene. They put in a 36-hour shift after being dispatched from the Witch Fire to the Poomacha Fire near Fallbrook. They fought to protect homes. They lost some and saved some. They evacuated victims.

Opliger is one of the many members of the UCSD community who pitched in during the 2007 firestorm that devastated San Diego County. The blazes destroyed about 1,700 homes, including the residences of 15 UCSD employees.

“I just want to say that my heart goes out to the people who lost their homes,” Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Steven Relyea said during a Chancellor’s town hall meeting Oct. 31.

The university has put a wide range of measures in place to help fire victims, including emergency loans, counseling and a leave donation program. UCSD volunteers also responded during the fires to help victims in both the campus and San Diego communities. They worked at evacuation centers and gave benefit concerts. Fire relief efforts continued this week on and off campus and included a blood drive and several donation drives. Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Penny Rue asked UCSD Cares, the campus’ umbrella organization for charitable initiatives, to coordinate future efforts.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the faculty, staff and students who are really coming together and who really want to make a difference,” said Irma Martinez Velasco, the director of campus relations in the Chancellor’s office. “We want to let the surrounding community know that UCSD cares.”

Benefit concert

Serge Belongie performing.

Serge Belongie, a computer scientist, and his rock band, SO3, sent that message loud and clear Oct. 25 when they held a benefit concert for fire evacuees at the 710 Beach Club in Pacific Beach. The performance made them take a fresh look at some of their lyrics. “Look to the east and tell me what you see, that rising sun ain’t what it used to be,” one of their songs goes. While they rehearsed that song, they looked up and saw that the sun had turned into a bright-red disk, just like during the 2003 Cedar Fires. “There was something apocalyptic about that,” Belongie said.

The concert, which included two other bands, raised $165. Intuit, the employer of SO3 guitarist and UCSD alumnus Mike Artamonov, matched it, increasing the total amount raised to $330. Belongie’s band is now planning a benefit concert Nov. 10 in New York, with another San Diego group, featuring UCSD graduate students, and two New York bands. “There’s just so much support from New York, they’re really aware of what’s going on,” the professor said.

Earlier in the week, he had taken in Artamonov, SO3’s guitarist, who had to evacuate his Rancho Bernardo home. Belongie himself had to leave his Sorrento Valley home for a few hours.

“It could have been us that lost our house,” he said. “It’s that simple. That’s the closest it’s ever been for us.”


Almost losing a home
A neighbor looks at Julie Cullen's home.

UCSD economist Julie Cullen said she also thought she lost her house during the fires – at least twice. Cullen lives in Poway, off Highway 67. She was on a business trip in Washington, D.C. when the blazes started. Her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 7, evacuated Oct. 23 around midnight and headed to the house of Cullen’s colleague, Roger Gordon.

On Oct. 22, around midnight, a neighbor called to say a wood pile near the Cullen’s home had caught fire. They asked him to call back if their house actually burned down. By then it was 3 a.m. in Washington, D.C. The neighbor called back to say the house was safe. Then Oct. 23, another neighbor called to say he saw a house burn, but couldn’t tell whether it was the Cullen’s. Finally, Oct. 24, Cullen’s husband, Brian, was able to get to their home and found it intact.

The family was able to move back Oct. 26 but won’t have any power until Nov. 9. Cullen said the whole experience helped her realize losing the house wasn’t the worst that could happen. “We love the place,” she said. “But we could recover from it.”

Fighting the fire

Volunteer Firefighters
Brandon Opliger and his fellow firefighters. Opliger is first on the right-hand side in the top row.

Meanwhile, UCSD student Opliger was doing his best to defend homes near Ramona and Fallbrook. His engine was one of the first on scene when the Poomacha fire erupted in the middle of the night. Residents were trying to evacuate. Opliger and his fellow firefighters helped them load their cars and get out of the fire’s reach.

Other residents didn’t want to leave. “This is my home;” “this is all I have,” they would say. So Opliger and his colleagues moved them to safety and tried to protect their homes. At one point, Opliger’s crew got burned over and he lost contact with two of his crew members. He worried that they might be hurt but was able to reach them after a few minutes. There are times when fires remind you they’re dangerous, Opliger said.

He is carrying on a family tradition. His father and stepmother are firefighters, as were his mother and grandfather before they left the business. For a long time, Opliger didn’t want to have anything to do with fighting blazes. “When I was little, I wouldn’t see my father for six months during fire season,” he recalls. Then he started volunteering. “I like the feeling you get after you help someone,” he said.

Other fire relief efforts

Blood Drive (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Jack Briggs gives blood during an Oct. 30 blood drive.

That same feeling made many UCSD students turn out to give blood Oct. 30 during a drive on Library Walk. Sarah Chang, a biology and cell biology major, was the driving force behind this effort. As the Associated Students’ Vice President of Finance and Resources, she volunteered to coordinate the drive.

She called the San Diego Blood Bank Oct. 25 again and again until she was able to reach a representative. They told her the bank was booked for the next year in the aftermath of the wildfires. She asked that they keep her posted if a blood mobile became available. She got the call Oct. 29 around 1 p.m. and managed to find a parking spot for the vehicle Oct. 30 on campus. Then she did her best to publicize the event. Blood bank officials told her nurses were busy during the drive’s entire five-hour span.

“A lot of the time, as a student, I feel pretty small, considering the scope of things,” Chang wrote in an e-mail. “Doing this, combined with all of the other efforts and time other students are putting into the relief effort, has reminded me that I'm not so powerless.”

Students’ future relief efforts will include a gift card donation drive and a telethon on Warren College Television Nov. 7. “There is a lot of enthusiasm from students and faculty and staff to help,” said Emily Marx, director of UCSD’s Center for Student Involvement. “I think people are just looking for a way to plug in.”

OASIS Staff (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
The OASIS staff at The Many Flavors of Diversity event Nov. 1

Not to be outdone, the UCSD Chicano-Latino, Black and Pan-Asian staff associations organized a donation drive during The Many Flavors of Diversity event Nov. 1 at the International Center. More than 100 turned out and brought food, blankets and other items, said Martinez Velasco, the director of campus relations. The items will go to the UCSD Staff Association, which plans to take the lead to help Native American reservations that have suffered major fire damage, she said.

“We want UCSD to be seen as a leader and show that we care,” she added.

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