Pepperdine University defends controversial "shelter in place" policy during Woolsey Fire
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Despite calls for evacuation by authorities as the Woolsey fire approached campus, Pepperdine University chose to shelter, rather than evacuate, around 1000 students that remained on campus.
The Christian liberal arts university, located in Malibu, initiated a “shelter in place” order to students on campus despite an all-city evacuation order. Pepperdine instructed students to stay on campus, and move to the Tyler Campus Center or Firestone Fieldhouse as the Woolsey fire changed paths, beginning to travel back towards the coast.
Even as flames approached within view of campus, students were instructed to not evacuate. “Multiple L.A. County fire department strike teams and fire department air operations are engaging the fire from campus,” the Pepperdine Emergency Information website said at the time. The Los Angeles Times reported that the firefighters “staged an all-out fight overnight to save Pepperdine,” contributing significantly to what ultimately kept the school safe.
Due to the large number of students remaining on campus, fire resources were diverted to Pepperdine and away from the community in an effort to protect the campus. As a result, parts of the community were left to burn unattended, to the displeasure of some in the community. “This shelter-in-place policy is going to have to be reassessed,” said state Senator Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) to a crowd at a community meeting on Sunday concerning the fires. “We cannot sacrifice the rest of Malibu for Pepperdine.”
Pepperdine President Andrew K. Benton has defended the policy, which dates back to 1993 and was formed after a fire in 1985 alongside the Los Angeles County Fire Department. According to President Brenton’s Twitter, it has been used multiple times since then in Old Topanga (1993), Calabasas (1996), and the Canyon and Corral fires (2007). The university’s plan had the support of the Los Angeles Fire Department as the safest option for the students during the Wooley Fire as well, according to Pepperdine vice president for student affairs, Connie Horton.
Some parents, family members, and friends were concerned for their students’ mental well-being with the impending destruction. Pepperdine First-year Sarah Morehead, told the Horizon that those who stayed “were able to see the flames coming over the hill as they were waiting in the cafeteria… but overall, there was a feeling of community and safety there.” Students showered pictures and videos of the ways they were making light of a difficult situation; videos of them playing Mario Kart and card games, setting up tents, and having dance parties were shared on social media.
As of November 10th, Pepperdine reported that there are “no flames on the Malibu campus.” No significant injury or loss of life on campus due to the fire have been reported. After the shelter in place order was lifted, those on campus were free to move about but classes have been cancelled since November 9th. The Malibu campus will remain closed through Thanksgiving break.