Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Why Pepperdine Stays Put When Wildfires Rage

Following up on my previous posts:

Curbed Los Angeles, Why Pepperdine Stays Put When Wildfires Rage:

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.) ...

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.”

But Pepperdine’s best defense against fire may be the design of its campus itself, by William Pereira, one of LA’s most prolific midcentury architects.

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 diligent about brush clearance as well, eliminating combustible vegetation at least 200 feet around all buildings. “We are really religious about it,” says 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.

Pepperdine is the blue oval in the lower right of this Woolsey Fire map:

Fire Map Malibu

Pepperdine Fire (111018)

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They've actually done it dating back to 1985 when I was a student.

Posted by: PaulH | Nov 21, 2018 11:06:59 AM

Environmental blindness is not limited to California. Here in Kansas, I've seen a few people with decorative log homes and cedar shingles in the middle of Eastern Red Cedar groves. It's only a matter of time before a spark makes that go up just as fast as any California overgrown underbrush, it's just that for *most* of the state we have sense and keep the cedars burned down. If the whole state stopped controlled burns, in about 10-20 years, we'd have fires just as bad.

Posted by: Georg Felis | Nov 21, 2018 9:30:05 AM

Wish you the best, don't take chances.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Nov 21, 2018 4:04:56 AM