The Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres, destroyed approximately 1500 structures, and became one of the most destructive and costliest fires in Southern California. However, as many communities were evacuated, students at Pepperdine University sheltered-in-place on campus, an action that drew a lot of criticism to the university’s fire response.
The entire city of Malibu was under mandatory evacuation beginning in the early morning of Friday Nov. 9th. When residents were allowed to return to their homes many found nothing left. In accordance with a 33 year-long shelter-in-place policy, students and faculty sought refuge at Pepperdine that same night, as flames advanced on and eventually breached campus borders. In the end, no lives were lost or structural damage done to the Malibu campus. However, as the fire surrounded campus and flames came closer to students, controversy over Pepperdine’s shelter in-place policy ignited and caused many to question the validity and motives behind the policy.
Community Calls for Student Evacuation
Malibu residents voiced their concerns and disapproval of Pepperdine’s shelter-in-place policy on social media and at public meetings.
At the Malibu evacuee public meeting held in Santa Monica High school Nov. 13, a Malibu resident asked “Why didn’t they evacuate at Pepperdine?” while another shouted “Where were all the fire trucks?”
A major worry was that by sheltering students in place, firefighters were forced to protect the school instead of saving other areas or homes. However multiple people have spoken to debunk the claim that Pepperdine keeps students on campus to protect its structures.
At the Santa Monica town hall meeting for evacuees, Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said the shelter-in-place policy is a viable option to implement when a fire threatens the campus.
“It is something the fire service utilizes as a tool and will continue to use throughout the years,” Richardson said.
City Manager Reva Feldman said the firefighters who went to Pepperdine not only protected the Pepperdine campus and the Pepperdine students, but they also protected the rest of the city of Malibu.
“We are all one community whether we’re in 90265 or outside of the city boundary,” Feldman said. “We are all one community and Pepperdine is part of our community.”
Feldman also reminded people at the town hall that many students on campus are far away from home and do not own cars.
“There’s no way to quickly evacuate 3,500 18- to 20-year-olds without vehicles,” Feldman said.
Los Angeles County Fire Public Information Officer AJ Lester said firefighters’ priority during a fire is to save lives, property and the environment.
Lester said he understands why people might be frustrated with the policy.
“I think the anger of residents has a lot more to do with just the size and breadth of how fast this fire spread and the amount of damage that it caused,” Lester said.
However, as far as the public being concerned with the shelter-in-place protocol taking resources away from other other areas in Malibu, Lester said it is not necessarily true.
Connie Horton, vice president of Student Affairs, said she also understands why Malibu residents were upset.
“A number of the Malibu residents … lost their houses tragically, so I can understand why they’re so upset,” Horton said. “But, they lost their homes hours before we had any of that fire support here. It’s an understandable distress time for them. But later, when we see the whole timeline laid out and emotions are calmed, I think it’ll be easier to have some of these conversations.”
Creation of the Shelter-in-Place Policy
Fifteen years before his presidency, during the 1985 Piuma Fire, Pepperdine President Andrew Benton said there was no effective policy to deal with students during fire emergencies. He said many people, administration, students and himself included, just left campus.
“I went over to Westlake Village and I got to thinking that there was probably no one on campus who was helping manage students who were stuck,” Benton said. “So the vice president and I got back on campus and it was true. There was no coordinated activity on campus at that time. It was really quite dangerous and so immediately thereafter, we began to put together a plan.”
The plan that emerged was the shelter in-place policy. Pepperdine worked thoughtfully with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to develop the best plan for the university in the event of a wildfire.
“We first used shelter in-place in the 1993 fire,” Benton said. “And fortunately, prior to that fire, we had worked our plans with the county fire department and they approved those plans. And so we never deviated from it. And over all the … five fires that we sheltered in-place, we’ve never had anyone hurt.”
The Woolsey Fire was the sixth time the policy was used.
Pepperdine’s Reason to Stay
The design of the Pepperdine campus provides natural fire breaks, and is one of the major reasons why the shelter-in-place policy continues to be used. Campus buildings are constructed with fire-resistant materials such as tile roofs and glass windows.
Benton said brush is cleared 200 feet from habitable structures on campus and 50 feet from roads to minimize fire danger.
“We have constructed our campus to be safe,” Benton said. “Our buildings are stucco with tile roofs and not a lot of wood exposed.”
During fires, the fire department uses Pepperdine’s lakes on Alumni Park to refill their helicopters’ water tanks.
Lester said Pepperdine is an area the fire department can use to stage resources to try mitigating problems as they come up.
“Whether it’d be a structure that starts catching fire or a canyon that flares up, we use that area as kind of a staging location,” Lester said.
Benton said Pepperdine’s conviction is that it is far safer to remain put than to leave campus.
Dangers of Evacuating
Early morning Friday Nov. 9, the City of Malibu issued a mandatory evacuation notice which led thousands of residents to take Pacific Coast Highway and head towards Santa Monica for safety. Many leaving Malibu spent hours in traffic.
“Adding another 3,500 people to that evacuation process is only going to take to make the process longer and have more people clogged,” Lester said.
There are limited numbers of ways to travel from the campus. Power outages and spurious cell service made it difficult for people to know what roads remained opened and closed. Roads stayed congested nearly all day, as emergency responders tried their best to evacuate all residents and fight the fire.
Pepperdine administration worried students safety would be compromised if they decided to get out on the roads.
“Traffic was moving very slowly much of the day and so part of why we would not have encouraged students to make that choice individually is because you don’t want to start going and then get stuck,” Horton said. “We have students that tried it then ran out of gas and then the gas stations maybe weren’t able to help them. So while it seems like the easy option, it doesn’t always turn out to be that way.”
Sophomore student Juan Carlos Hugues also shared this sentiment, which is why he said he decided to stay.
“I’ve been on PCH,” Hughes said. “People don’t put blinkers on even when it’s daylight and it’s sunny and people are driving 60 to 70 miles per hour. Now imagine under pressure [and] anxiety – all of that – a fight or flight kind of mentality.”
For the entirety of the time students were sheltered-in-place, various resources were available to them, which is why administration heavily advised students to remain put.
“We have a lot of water stored on campus, we have food that is here on campus,” Benton said. “We have doctors. We have counselors. We have satellite phones. We have a caring community here who can look after our students just like they would look after their own children.”
Flames on Campus: The Night of Nov. 9
Whether for fear of safety on the roads, lack of a place to escape to or transportation to get there, Benton said about 600 people, including students, faculty and staff, chose to shelter in-place on Friday rather than evacuating.
Horton said the morale was high during most of the day while shelter in-place protocol initiated starting at 7:07 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9.
“As students were leaving their residence halls and walking towards the Waves Cafe, for example, I was so struck by how orderly and calm everyone was,” Horton said. “They had their pillows and their blankets and small bags, just calmly walking down to the area.”
Students sheltered in Firestone Fieldhouse gymnasium, the Waves Cafe and, later in the day, Payson Library. People set up tents, sang songs and played games.
“The initial part was almost like a slumber party kind of feel,” Horton said.
Senior Graylen Goff works for the university’s Health Center and volunteered her time working in the makeshift first aid clinic set up in the cafeteria Fireside Room during the fire. Goff said she experienced a sense of “community and calm” among those who decided to stay on campus.
“Even with the disaster going on right outside of our doors, at one point students started singing “Don’t Stop Believing” and Christmas songs on the piano,” Goff said.
However, as the day progressed, night fell and flames spread closer to Pepperdine, emotions “heightened,” Horton said.
Goff said, at one point, she could smell smoke inside the buildings. It became so bad that workers in the first aid clinic had to barricade the cracks of the doors with wet blankets to keep smoke from coming through.
“Once the fire hit at night was when we started to see more breathing problems coming in,” Goff said. “I think it was a mix of the anxiety as well as the smoke.”
Pepperdine Medical Director Lucy Larson wrote in an email that “smoke inhalation” is a major concern during fires. Breathing in smoke can lead to dangerous exposure to carbon monoxide and other small particles.
Larson masks, oxygen, antibiotics, fluids, medically trained providers, and other emergency supplies were all available in the first aid station in the Fireside Room during the fires to address any medical problems the smoke may cause.
The Health Center passed out masks to everyone taking shelter on campus. As flames approached, students could see the blaze from the windows of the library and the air quality grew increasingly worse.
“I could feel it getting worse and even like hurting a little bit to breathe,” Hugues said. “Even though Pepperdine told us that we would be kept safe, the smoke scared me.”
Connie Horton addressed students on Friday evening saying they would continue to see flames, but was totally confident they would remain safe.
“I think some of the flames that were on the hills that the students could see from Payson were more frightening to them, but that wasn’t as frightening to some of [the administration] because we were confident that the firefighters could get that,” Horton said. “We knew we had the brush clearance there and it wasn’t directly near a building, but it was a visual that was pretty stunning from the library.”
Miscommunication the Night of the Fire
Several sources confirmed that sheriffs came on campus at one point Friday night and urged the people there to evacuate.
“The biggest moment of confusion… was when, I’m sure well-intending, but misinformed sheriffs gave some direction that was opposite to what our plan is and opposite to what the fire department has agreed our plan is,” Horton said. “So they were saying, ‘You need to go! Evacuate!’ at one moment. Clearly that is not the plan, and so I can understand why that was confusing and upsetting [to students].”
Despite some rumors that door guards were stationed to prevent people from leaving, Horton said students were allowed to make the decision for themselves whether to evacuate or shelter in-place.
Benton said around this point in the night, after firefighters and flame arrived on campus, the number of people sheltering at Pepperdine dwindled from about 600 to 300.
Addressing the people remaining in the cafeteria, Benton said he was “irritated” and nervous that the miscommunication “frightened some of your brothers and sisters out into the roadways.” He pointed out reasons to stay in his brief speech.
“When people get into a big hurry, fire department, sheriff’s department, they move on instinct, and their instinct is to just get everybody out of harm’s way and move them, move them, move them,” Benton said. “The question is, where do you go? How do you get there? What’s there when you arrive, wherever it is you’re going? We don’t think that’s best.”
Another area of confusion arose when rumors spread that students were being held hostage on campus, and not allowed to leave.
Hugues said seeing the flames and hearing people from outside spread misinformation heightened his fears.
“It was also the fear from outside – people rattling up situations, putting up fake news,” Hugues said. “They were falsely claiming that the president was keeping us hostage against our will.”
Hugues said he trusted Pepperdine through the process, but believes Pepperdine could avoid misinformation from spreading by explaining the shelter-in-place policy to students and community members before an emergency.
“I knew that Pepperdine had a protocol in mind, that I knew specifically what that protocol was, what would happen – no I don’t think so,” Hugues said. “Maybe in the future say, okay, please stick with us through the process and then… tell us, ‘Hey, it’s going to clear up in the night. And then in the morning you can make your way out.’”
The Future of Shelter-in-Place Policy
At the public meeting, Feldman said the City of Malibu would talk to Pepperdine about the shelter-in-place policy and look at different options.
Pepperdine administrators said they are confident sheltering in-place works, but are willing to look at options that could make it safer for students.
“The only thing that would cause us to turn away from shelter in place would be if there were dramatically changed circumstances,” Benton said. “I don’t know what would cause us to change our minds, but we would be willing to change our mind if we thought we could treat students more safely in a different way.”
Given the combined force of Pepperdine’s recent efforts to grow in size, increased on-campus housing and Malibu’s remote location with only two major arteries along the coast to go in and out from, the number of people impacted by wildfires will continue to grow.
The shelter-in-place policy will have to be analyzed for the safety of both the city and the university.
Follow Araceli Crescencio on Twitter: @aratells
Follow Mary Cate Long on Twitter: @journ_marycate