From his time as an undergraduate and law student at Pepperdine University, Phil Phillips has witnessed five wildfires descend from the hills toward campus, never forcing an evacuation.
Pepperdine, nestled in an unincorporated enclave above Malibu, California, has a unique wildfire shelter-in-place protocol for wildfires. It’s spelled out in Pepperdine’s emergency operations manual and enabled by the campus’ fire-wise design, conceived by architect William Pereira in the early 1970s. Pepperdine’s shelter-in-place practice is approved by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and regularly communicated to students and families, says Phillips, Pepperdine’s Senior Vice President for Administration and Chief Administrative Officer.
“We consider fire planning a moral duty,” he said. “We have a responsibility to these young people and their parents.”
Yet, the Woolsey Fire in November 2018 tested the shelter-in-place policy like no wildfire before. Phillips, an attorney who oversees Pepperdine’s emergency planning, offered his perspective on why the campus’ wildfire protocol stirred questions, but ultimately supported Pepperdine’s resilience. A timeline helps tell the story.
Nov. 8: Activating wildfire shelter-in-place plan
Evening: Phillips prepares for another night on campus. He spent the previous night there following a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in nearby Thousand Oaks, which took the life of a Pepperdine student. The campus grieves as the approaching wildfire prompts the activation of the Emergency Operations Committee’s wildfire plan. “So, we’re experiencing two emergencies as one,” Phillips said. “We literally turn to the Wildfire section of our manual and start taking action, step by step.” Otherwise, in their shock and grief, essential steps could be forgotten, such as turning on the valve to pump reclaimed water into Pepperdine’s two reservoirs, used by the county fire department’s air operations to replenish during a fire.
Nov. 9: Gathering students as wildfire approaches
Morning: The first wildfire relocation alert calls for people on campus to come to the gym or cafeteria. “We need everyone together, where we can protect them,” Phillips said. The county fire department comes regularly to inspect campus spaces, vegetation and brush clearance, as well as to align on protocol, including that firefighters will arrive if a fire reaches a certain threat level for campus. “They have affirmed this is the safest place our people can be,” Phillips said.
Noon: The campus safety patrol, monitoring the fire from hilltops, radios administrators to say the flames are moving slower than expected as winds shift. Students are told it’s safe to leave the two relocation sites briefly and to return at 2 p.m. “We have a public safety lieutenant who is embedded with the fire department during a fire,” Phillips said. That helps provide accurate information. However, this fire was especially chaotic, so updates were less frequent.
2-11 p.m.: Students are back in the relocation sites. Phillips and other administrators are fielding calls from people saying Pepperdine should evacuate. Phillips attributes the misinformation to confusion among non-local law enforcement who are not aware of Pepperdine’s procedures and resources.
At one point late in the night, officers enter one of the relocation sites and reassure the students and officers that Pepperdine is approved to shelter in place. The campus is equipped with fire engines, wildfire-trained public safety officers, a defensible building (equipped with a generator) that can function as a command center for first responders, medical supplies including air masks, and two weeks’ worth of food and water for 6,000 people.
11:30 p.m.: Throughout the night, Phillips is anxious for a call back from the county battalion chief to confirm that, when the fire comes, firefighters will be there. Eventually the call comes, and the flames, and the firefighters. Students remain safe inside the relocation centers until the fire passes.
Morning after: University surveys damage
The fire leaves a residence hall with minor damage caused by an ember in its attic, with campus patrol extinguishing the flames before county firefighters arrived. A few windows are shattered from the heat. Some cars, landscaping, and storage containers are scorched. “This was by far the most challenging and dangerous fire that we’ve experienced in my time here, and it was the largest, most destructive fire that Los Angeles County has experienced on record,” Phillips said. “And we fared great, with almost no damage. Our plans worked really well.”
Weeks after: Addressing a false narrative
In public hearings, some Malibu residents question why they were forced to evacuate, but not Pepperdine. Someone develops a false narrative that too much of the county resources were at Pepperdine and that’s why losses occurred in Malibu. “But the fire burned in Malibu hours before the first county firefighters arrived at Pepperdine at 11:30 that night,” Phillips said.
Besides protecting Pepperdine’s approximately 3,600 undergraduate students from the hazards of fleeing (some don’t have cars, and last-minute evacuations can be deadly), sheltering in place also avoids contributing to dangerous gridlock on the Pacific Coast Highway during a wildfire.
Future: Seeking shelter-in-place endorsement
Reviewing their plan, members of Pepperdine’s Emergency Operations Committee agree on two communication enhancements. One is to seek a letter from county officials endorsing Pepperdine’s shelter-in-place policy, to show to non-local law enforcement during a fire. Another is to communicate at predictable intervals via the emergency blog and other social media, even if there’s nothing new to report, to allay worries and ease rumors. Example: A reporter asked administrators during the fire about a report that Pepperdine was locking in students. Phillips attributed that rumor to quick closing of doors when anyone entered or left the relocation buildings – to keep smoke out.
Conclusions: The plan supports resilience
The Woolsey Fire reinforced the foundation of Pepperdine’s wildfire plan: “Emergency planning and preparation is something you’ve got to do in a way that’s real and unique to your situation,” Phillips said. “Continuously updating our plan is essential.” The next semester validated those efforts. “Not one student who experienced the fire failed to re-enroll,” Phillips said. “And that says a lot about resilience.”
This Resilience Trailblazer story is an excerpt from our upcoming report, “California fires: Building resilience from the ashes,” which uses Zurich’s award-winning Post-Event Review Capability to learn from disasters. Our Resilience Trailblazer stories highlight individuals who, as a part of an organization or team, are helping to lead the shift from post-disaster relief to pre-event resilience within their areas of influence. Resilience Trailblazer stories are based on our interviews with the person featured. The content is used with permission of the persons featured.
Find more Resilience Trailblazer stories here.
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