While the rest of Malibu evacuates, the hillside college hunkers down
Earlier that morning, a wall of flames 14 miles wide had crossed the 101 freeway and barreled through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. Now the blaze was churning along the Pacific Ocean.
“I’m up there watching the smoke and saying that’s Point Dume, now that’s Kanan Dume, that’s where the smoke is coming from,” the biology professor recalls. “If it gets to Mesa Peak, it’s going to come over that ridge, and we’ll have 12 hours.”
His prediction was right.
By nightfall, flames had encroached onto the campus’s perimeter and administrators decided to gather students into two centralized buildings, putting their faith in Pepperdine’s fire-resistant design.
Since 1974, Davis, a plant ecologist, has studied the effects of fire on native vegetation in the region. He hasn’t had to go very far to do research. There have been five fires on or near Pepperdine’s campus since he started. Davis ticks them off on his fingers. The Woolsey Fire makes six.
In 1985, the Piuma Fire created harrowing conditions that “caused some students at Pepperdine University to flee their dormitories… when flames burned within about 30 yards of some buildings,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
The school needed a new emergency plan to keep students and faculty safe, especially when so many people attending and working at the school from out of the area had nowhere to go.
The plan also needed to address the other big problem Davis witnessed from his lookout—a view of Pacific Coast Highway, crawling with the vehicles of tens of thousands of residents who had just been ordered to evacuate.
The prospect of relocating a university using the gridlocked PCH isn’t feasible when an entire city of car-dependent residents are evacuating themselves.
“Some students are away from home and don’t have cars,” said Malibu city manager Reva Feldman, responding to questions a few days later at a town hall for evacuees. “There’s no way to quickly evacuate 3,500 18- to 20-year-olds without vehicles.”
Working closely with Los Angeles County Fire Department, Pepperdine’s administrators developed a shelter-in-place policy that allows students to remain on campus for a range of disasters—a policy that has been deployed every time a fire has come close since 1993.
“It is viable,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said about the policy at the same town hall for evacuees. “It is something the fire service utilizes as a tool and will continue to use throughout the years.”
During the Woolsey Fire, however, that policy was scrutinized by Malibu residents. Among the concerns—angrily voiced on social media and at public meetings—were that students should not be allowed to stay while residents are forced to follow mandatory evacuation orders, and that the fire department was using resources to protect the school instead of saving their homes. (“I guarantee you that that’s not the case,” said Richardson.)
Still, these sentiments were echoed by state Sen. Henry Stern, who grew up in Malibu.
“This shelter-in-place policy is going to have to be reassessed,” he said at the town hall. “We cannot sacrifice the rest of Malibu for Pepperdine.”
Fire is such a way of life at Pepperdine that students and faculty can measure their time at the school in the number of times they’ve participated in the shelter-in-place exercise.
“Many of our employees are alumni who actually sheltered in place during a fire,” says Phil Phillips, the school’s vice president of administration, who was a Pepperdine student before he joined the faculty. The Woolsey Fire was his fifth.
Not only has the policy been in place for three decades, says Phillips, he worked closely with the assistant chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Anthony Williams, to audit the program as recently as last year.
“We would love to re-evaluate it—we want to do whatever is the safest thing,” says Phillips, sitting in a glass-walled conference room in the Charles B. Thornton Administrative Center, part of a compound of buildings including the Tyler Campus Center, where many of the students spent the night.
“If there are things we can do better, we want to do them better,” he says.
The policy has evolved a lot even in the last 15 years.
“Katrina changed emergency planning,” he says, forcing officials to rethink previous shelter-in-place standards. Procedures used to recommend storing enough food and water for five days, he says. “Now we have food and water for 5,000 for two weeks.”
Anticipating potential poor air quality due to fires, the medical center is now prepared with N-95 particle masks, and students have access to emergency inhalers, nebulizers, and oxygen.
One of the administrative buildings is even outfitted with communications equipment and generators that can function as an incident command center for the county to use for any emergency operations that might block PCH, from car crashes to landslides.
The style of the campus could be called Mediterranean modern: angular cast-concrete volumes situated around wide concrete plazas with spectacular ocean vistas. The steel-framed structures make good use of fire-resistant decorative materials like glass and ceramic tile.
The shapes of the buildings, with their steep Spanish-tile rooflines, also ensure that fast-moving fire won’t get trapped beneath deep eaves. Smaller structures and architectural elements are covered in stucco, without any exposed wood trim.
“The stucco box is horribly designed 95 percent of the time, but stucco is a very common material—and it’s a fantastic fire deterrent,” says Abeer Sweis, a designer whose Santa Monica-based firm has built fire-resistant homes.
“More even than material,” she says, “it’s the siting and the space between the buildings” that matters.
Of Pepperdine’s 830 acres, about 500 acres have no structures, thanks to Pereira’s dense clustering of buildings and maintained open spaces. School officials “are really religious” about brush clearance as well, eliminating combustible vegetation at least 200 feet around all buildings, according to Phillips.
Even the campus’s sprawling front lawn—a natural meadow that was planted with grass—plays a role in fires.
The lush green slope is part of a water conservation system that allows Pepperdine to recycle waste water and store it on site. Runoff that’s waiting to be reused is captured in two lakes—which firefighters used to help manage the Woolsey Fire. The preservation of the meadow and the design of the water infrastructure were envisioned by Pereira as well.
These were decisions made in the early 1970s that Phillips says designers are trying to implement in new developments today. “We were decades ahead of our time,” he says.
On February 9, 1970, Pereira presented the master plan for Pepperdine’s Malibu campus at a glitzy dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel. Singer Pat Boone provided entertainment and the speakers included then-Governor Ronald Reagan.
The event, entitled “Birth of a College,” was so well-attended that Pereira had to make his presentation twice—once at the Century Plaza, and again for an overflow dinner at a Beverly Hilton ballroom down the street.
The plan was never made public, perhaps because Pereira’s idea—“clusters of houses set off by huge natural preserves”—would have put the housing much closer together and left more of the land undisturbed.
The opportunity to work on Pepperdine’s new campus gave Pereira a chance to revisit this idea.
In an audio recording from Pepperdine’s archives, he describes his vision for the school as one of “tightly knit buildings and protected open spaces.” He shows photographs of his inspiration for the campus: the Greek isle of Patmos, with its dense, walkable villages.
He also talks about the importance of leaving the meadow—what would become the expansive lawn—completely undeveloped. As a counterpoint, Periera shows images of other canyon-encroaching developments in the Malibu area.
“We call this ecological destruction,” he says. “And we propose to do exactly the opposite.”
Guests were wowed by Pereira’s “dazzling” concept, according to William Banowsky, who was named chancellor of the Malibu campus and then Pepperdine’s president. In his memoir, The Malibu Miracle, Banowsky applauds Pereira’s “fortress-like fireproof buildings,” which called for “expensive steel-reinforced concrete, poured in place.”
Pereira’s design was prescient. In September of that year, the Wright Fire ravaged the land Pepperdine had just started to develop.
On September 25, 1970, two large fires propelled by Santa Ana winds converged in the Santa Monica Mountains, eventually burning 135,000 acres from Newhall to Malibu—a similar path to the Woolsey Fire. The fires killed 10 people and destroyed more than 400 homes.
The fire ended up “scorching every foot of the empty campus,” according to Banowsky. Construction crews were so worried about the intense heat exploding the fuel tanks on their machinery that workers used earthmovers to clear the dry brush in the meadow and build a berm of dirt around the machines.
Over the next year, as Pereira’s vision started to take shape, the fire served as a reminder that the school had made a smart investment in its future.
As the Woolsey Fire marched closer to campus on that Friday afternoon, Madeleine Carr, news editor of Pepperdine’s student newspaper, the Pepperdine Graphic, had spent the past 24 hours reporting the death of her classmate, Alaina Housley, at the Borderline mass shooting in Thousand Oaks.
As flames licked at the ridge above them, 1,200 students, many of whom had spent the previous day in a prayer service for Housley, settled into their shelter-in-place locations for the night. Students had been allowed to leave if they chose, and about 200 left campus.
“I personally wasn’t afraid, because I knew that we’d survived before with barely a scratch,” Carr says. “Plus I’d rather be here with people who have all sorts of access to information I don’t have.”
She and her editorial team worked to snuff out the swirling rumors and misinformation on social media and local news channels about why Pepperdine students had stayed.
“The one I’ve been hearing most often is that people thought this was a hostage scenario,” says Carr. “That is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard—a Christian university is using human lives as a way to protect our building?”
In the middle of the night, a deputy who was unfamiliar with the school’s policy came into the Pauson Library and started yelling that everyone had to leave, causing a moment of terrifying pandemonium. Carr frantically helped a faculty advisor put masks on her children, preparing to flee, until staff convinced the students there had been a miscommunication.
Pepperdine’s president Andrew Benton was captured on a student video reassuring the crowds after the misunderstanding.
During a sleepless night, as helicopters rattled overhead to scoop water from the campus’s lake, a car and several small outbuildings burned, including ones containing some emergency food supplies.
Carr says she was relieved to learn that was the extent of the damage, especially for the grieving friends of their slain fellow student.
“Knowing that at least our school is standing for these poor girls, it was the biggest breath of relief,” she says. “Everything around us was burning and it was symbolic of what we were going through.”
When the order was lifted, Carr returned to her residence hall and was astounded to see the campus worked exactly as designed.
“I started looking at buildings,” she says. “At one of my friend’s dorms, the fire burnt the grass behind it. You can see the line of black, that scorching, all along the side of the building—but the building didn’t burn. Nothing caught on fire.”
When Davis first came to Pepperdine in 1974 to study how fire impacted the local ecosystem, one of his early discoveries was that the school was in an area that burned more frequently than anywhere else in the Santa Monica Mountains. Prior research showed that Malibu Canyon used to experience fires every 20 or 25 years.
Now, he says, it’s every seven years.
Climate change is absolutely a factor, he says. California has seen below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures since 2012, which has lengthened the period of time in which fires are more likely to strike. Fires that are too frequent choke out native species, introducing fast-growing invasive weeds that are easier to burn.
But there’s also the fact that 95 percent of fires California are started by the activities or presence of people, according to Cal Fire.
In a swiftly expanding metropolitan area of 14 million residents, as other experts have pointed out, the danger is not as much about the risk of fire—it’s that more people are choosing to live in areas that are prone to burn.
“The defense zones are getting bigger as the population is growing. At a certain point, there’s not enough humans or helicopters or technology,” says Davis. “I know the administration has done their homework on this. And I’ve been through all those fires.”
That Friday, as the Woolsey Fire grew, and as he started doing his basic calculations up on the ridge, Davis had the first horrific images of the Camp Fire in his mind. Only the day before, the Northern California wind-whipped inferno had trapped dozens of people in vehicles as they tried to escape.
“What if those cars are backed up all the way to Point Dume?” he thought, as he scanned the plume of smoke and the motionless vehicles on PCH.
“I would never say that we’re invincible,” says Davis, staring out at the charred hillsides one week after he stood watch, as the still-burning fire had consumed more than 97,000 acres.
“I believe in prayer and preparedness, but I believe in luck and good fortune,” he says. “ “You plan—and you do the best you can.”