Tuesday, November 27, 2018

What We Learned From The Fire

Hello Everyone:

Yours Truly is back from a restful Thanksgiving holiday. The Candidate Forum is still on vacation. Poor thing was exhausted by the midterm madness but promises to be back next week with a thought or two on a couple of developing stories. In the meantime, Yours Truly has some good news to report about the massively horrific fires in California: The fires are contained. Hurray.  The bad news is now comes the terrible job of recovering the missing and rebuilding what was lost in the fire. One place that remained a safe haven during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu was Pepperdine University.  Pepperdine is a lovely university campus overlooking the scenic Pacific Coast Highway.  During the fire, students were sheltered in two centralized buildings as the blaze began to encroach on the campus perimeter, a policy called "shelter-in-place."  Now, in the wake of the destructive Woolsey Fire, that policy is being reconsidered by university officials and whether or not it should be continued as is or does it need an update.

Since 1974, there have been now six fires on or near the university. Alissa Walker wrote in her Los Angeles Curbed article "Why Pepperdine stays put when wildfires rage," (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018, date accessed Nov. 27, 2018), "In 1985, the Piuma Fires created harrowing conditions that 'caused some students at Pepperdine University to flee their dormitories... when flames burned within about 39 yards of some buildings'" [articles.latimes.com; Oct. 15, 1985; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018].  Essentially, many of the students and faculty were from out of the area and had nowhere to go. 

Any new plan needed to address what plant ecologist Stephen Davis witnessed on Friday November 9, 2018, the day the Woolsey Fire broke out.  Prof. Davis has studied he effects of fire on native vegetation in the region (newsroom.pepperdine.edu; Aug. 29, 2013; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018). On that day, he hiked up the university's nature reserve to follow the path of the Fire.  Earlier that day, "wall of flames 14 miles wide had crossed the 101 Freeway and battled through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.  Now the blaze was churning along the Pacific Ocean" (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018).  Prof. Davis told Los Angeles Curbed,

I'm up there watching the smoke and say Point Dume, now that's Kanan Dume, that's where the smoke is coming from.... If it gets to Mesa Peak, it's going to come over the ridge and we'll have 12 hours. (Ibid)

He was right

Any new plan also needed to address another problem that Prof. Davis identified from his vantage point--"a view of Pacific Coast Highway [Ibid] crawling with vehicles of tens of thousands of residents who had just been ordered to evacuate" (Ibid). 

Alissa Walker writes, "The prospect of relocating a university using the gridlocked PCH isn't feasible when an entire city of car-dependent residents are evacuating themselves" (Ibid). 

Malibu city manager Reva Feldman responded to questions during a recent town hall for evacuees,

Some students are away from home and don't have cars,.... There's no way to quickly evacuate 3,500 18- to 20-year-olds without vehicles.  (Ibid)

Working in consultation with the Los Angeles County Fure Department, university administrators developed a shelter-in-place policy (emergency.pepperdine.edu; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018) that has been implemented (twitter.com/@PresidentBenton; Nov. 10, 2018; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018) since 1993, whenever a fire has come close. 

L.A. County FD Chief Deputy David Richardson, speaking at the same town hall, said It is viable,.... It is something that fire service utilizes as a tool and will continue to use throughoutini the years. (Ibid)

However, the Woolsey Fire has prompted scurtiny (latimes.com; Nov.13, 2018; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018) by Malibu residents.  Residents angrily voiced their concerns on the social media (twitter.com/@LindyLawyer; Nov. 10, 2018; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018) and at public meetings (youtube.com; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018) that students should be allowed to stay behind while residents were forced to follow mandatory evacuation orders and that the fire department was focusing its resources on protecting the school instead of their homes.  State Senator and Malibu native Henry Stern (sd27.senate.ca.gov; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018). State Senator Stern, also speaking at the town hall, said

This shelter-in-place policy is going to have to be reassessed,... We cannot sacrifice he rest of Malibu for Pepperdine. (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018).

At Phil Phillips, the unversity's Vice President of administration and Pepperdine alumnus declared, Many of our employees are alumni who actually sheltered in place during a fire (Ibid). Mr. Phillips told Los Angeles Curbed, "...the policy been in place for three decades,..." (Ibid). Mr. Phillips worked closely  with L.A. County FD assistant chief Anthony Williams to audit the program last year.  He said,

 We would live to re-evaluate it--we want to do whatever is the safest thing... If there are things we can do better,we want to do them (Ibid).

Hurricane Katrina forced one such policy re-evaluation. He continues, Katrina changed emergency planning (Ibid). It forced Malibu city officials to reconsider previous shelter-in-place standards. Originals procedures recommended storing enough food and water for five days.  Now we have enough foo d and water for 5,000 for two weeks (Ibid). 

Anticipating poor air quality (always a by-product of fires), Pepperdine's medical center is fully stocked with N-95 particle masks, and a accessible emergency inhalers, nebulizers, and oxygen.  One of the administrative buildings is kitted out with communication equipment and generators that can function as. Command center for the county during an emergency situation on PCH. Perhaps Pepperdine's best defense is its design, by Los Angeles architect extraordinaire William Pereira (laconservancy.org; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018).  Alissa Walker describes,

"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." (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018). 

The shape of buildings, which feature steep Spanish tile roofs, prevent fast-moving fires from getti trapped beneath recessed eaves. Smaller buildings and architectural details are covered in stucco, with no exposed wood trim (Ibid). 

Abeer Sweis, a Santa Moncia-based designer whose firm has built fire resistant home told Los Angeles Curbed,

The stucco box is horribly designed 95 percent of the time, but stucco is a very common material--it's a fantastic fire deterrent... More even gab material,..., it's the siting and the space between the buildings... (Ibid)

This is important because 500 acres out of Pepperdine's 830 acres is open space, thanks to William Pereira's "dense clustering of buildings and maintained open spaces" (Ibid). Another key preventative measure is the university's diligent attention to brush clearance and eliminating combustible vegetation at least 200 feet around it. Let us just say they do not use rakes. Even the sprawling front lawn--a grass natural meadow--is part of the university's fire prevention program. 

Alissa Walker writes, "The lush green slope is part of a water conservation system [community.pepperdine.edu; date accessed Nov, 27, 2018] 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" ((la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018). 

This decision was made in the 1970s that Phil Phillips says "designers are trying to implement in new developments today."  He marvels, We were decades ahead of our time (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018). 

The campus design was prescient. On September 25, 1970, the Wright Fire scorched the newly developed land.  Two large fires, fueled by the Santa Ana winds (la.curbed.com; Sept. 22, 2016) converged in the Santa Moncia Mountains, burning 135,000 acres--from Newhall to Malibu--the same path as the now contained Woolsey Fire.  According to then-Chancellor and President William Banowsky, the fire ended up scorching every foot of the empty campus (la.curbed.com; Nov. 20, 2018). Over the following year, as William Pereira's vision began to take form, the fire served as a reminder that school made a very wise investment in the future. 

Meanwhile, as fire rimmed Pepperdine's edges, about 1,200 students settled into their shelter-in-places refuges for the night. The students were also allowed to leave if they wished,no about 200 exercised that option.  Throughout the night and into the weekend the editorial staff of the school newspaper, the Pepperdine Graphic (pepperdine-graphic.com; date accessed Nov. 27, 2018), worked furiously squelch every sort of rumour.  A miscommunication occurred when a sheriff deputy, unfamiliar with the shelter-in-place policy, entered Payson Library and began shouting at everyone to leave. Eventually, everyone was allowed to return to their dormitories or leave the campus. 

There are lessons to be learned from both the Camp Fire in Northern California and the Woolsey Fire.  Firest, climate change is absolutely a factor in the increasing severity of bush fires.  Rising temperature, and shorter rainy seasons lead dry brush, which are ideal kindling for fires.  Again, rakes are not the answer. Second, the area of protection is getting bigger. Both the Camp and Woolsey fires occurred in places where urban and forested areas meet, not in the forests themselves.  This was one reason for the massive property losses.  This should prompt city planners to rethink zoning these areas for residential developments. Seventy percent of California's public land is owned by the federal government, which means that mangement is the responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service (fs.fed.gov).  This means it is their job to clear the dry brush and chop down the dead trees.  Third, while Pepperdine University was fortunate that no one was injured or killed by the fire, school and county fire officials should do a thorough audit of the shelter-in-place policy. Good design is also a factor in fire prevention. Let us hope that going forward we heed the lessons of the fires and work to do better.  


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