PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Nestled between the Santa Monica Mountain foothills and the Pacific Ocean, Pepperdine University is known for its picturesque campus in Malibu.
Christian college where students are required to attend spiritual events, the school of 7,700 students has a reputation for high-caliber academics, ranking 46th on U.S. News & World Report's most recent "best universities" scorecard.
But on Friday night, as the Woolsey Fire bore down on the 830-acre campus, the school became the focus of controversy and confusion as Los Angeles County authorities issued a mandatory evacuation of Malibu, while Pepperdine leaders advised students to shelter in place.
As thousands of Malibu residents clogged the Pacific Coast Highway, heading south to safety in Santa Monica and beyond, some critics questioned whether the move put students at risk and was a dangerous gambit to force firefighters to devote more resources to the campus.
University leaders encouraged – but did not require – students to stay on campus in sheltered areas in the Payson Library and Tyler Campus Center where food, water and medical services were available.
About 1,200 students were sheltering in place at the start of Friday night as the wildfire approached the hillside of the campus around 11 p.m. At that time, the Los Angeles Fire Department responded with multiple strike teams and air operations, working until about 5:30 a.m. to put out the flames.
Officials said the Malibu campus only lost one vehicle, two container pods and one small storage trailer to the fire. Elsewhere in Malibu, dozens if not hundreds of homes and businesses have been reduced to ashes.
Alex Forero, a spokeswoman for Pepperdine, said that through the course of the night about 200 students left campus.
In remarks to students captured on video, University President Andrew Benton told students that the buildings on campus were built to withstand fire and it was best to stay in place.
"When people get into a big hurry – fire department, sheriff's department – they move on instinct, and their instinct is to just get everybody out of harm's way and move them, move them, move them," Benton told students. "The question is, where do you go? How do you get there? What's there when you arrive, wherever it is you're going? We don't think that's best."
Some students, parents and community members questioned whether the shelter-in-place protocol was appropriate; fire officials have repeatedly urged residents to heed evacuation orders and have emphasized that dealing with citizens and animals in evacuation areas while trying to fight fires puts a strain on their operations.
Pepperdine officials noted that their shelter-in-place protocol is reviewed regularly by the L.A. Fire Department and has kept students safe through other wildfire incidents. The university also said that it clears brush annually at least 200 feet from buildings. It added that its buildings are made with fire-resistant materials "whenever possible" and that campus roads "provide natural fire breaks."
How effective campus roads are as fire breaks was the subject of some debate; the Woolsey Fire jumped the 101 freeway and Pacific Coast Highway.
On Saturday morning, Daryl Osby, the L.A. fire chief, sought to downplay any notion of tension with Pepperdine leaders. Of the shelter-in-place recommendation, he said: "I believe that was a good decision."
Later, at an afternoon press conference, Osby said he had spoken with Benton "to assure we're on good accord." He added: "There were some failures of communication."
Shelly Ngo, an alum of Pepperdine and mother of a current student, said she supported the shelter-in-place decision.
"Students who had places to go were able to leave," Ngo tweeted. "Where do you think the university should have evacuated hundreds of students to? And how would they have transported them through grid-locked (Pacific Coast Highway) yesterday? And how would they have fed and housed them at this unknown place?"
Ngo said her daughter is a senior at the college and was evacuated from her off-campus apartment. She was sheltered on the Pepperdine campus until she was able to make it to her grandparents' home.
"Pepperdine has a long history of managing safety for its faculty and staff and students in conjunction with emergency personnel and they have done this well," Ngo said. "I can't imagine that the Malibu community would have appreciated Pepperdine evacuating hundreds of students via traffic-snarled PCH in the midst of the fires and traffic lanes needed for emergency responders.
Pepperdine has faced fire incidents before, including in 1985, 1993, 1996 and 2007. In 2007, the campus was threatened twice; in October, a blaze blackened many acres on campus, destroyed three university vehicles, "and burned lush plant life at the foot of the large cross at the campus entrance," according to an account by then-chair of the university's Board of Regents. Students gathered in Tyler Campus Center and Firestone Fieldhouse. A month later, another fire threatened the campus.
Officials at Pepperdine cleared the students to leave the campus Saturday morning and canceled classes until Nov. 13. "With flames extinguished around campus, all individuals on campus are safe and unharmed. I am profoundly grateful for the swift work of LAFD, LASD, and our student care teams and for the patience and cooperation of our incredible community, Benton said on Twitter. "Prayer is good, too."
Paul Joseph, 45, lives in Malibu Country Estates, a neighborhood that backs up to the university property. He said he believes the university plays a role in attracting more firefighting resources but was dismayed that it took fire crews so long to arrive.
"It's a horrible thing to hear when you call and they tell you to just get out because they have no resources to send," Joseph said. "It seemed they were strung so low on resources, but once crews did arrive, they did a great job."
He said he thinks the university made the right decision to shelter the students, though.
"There was a two- to three-hour wait to get out of there last night along Pacific Coast Highway," Joseph said. "It was wise to shelter them and keep more people off the streets. It was dangerous to be on those streets last night."
Follow Nicole Hayden on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.