Paul Caron considered the worst-case scenario as fire bore down on three sides of Pepperdine University on Nov. 9.
The law school dean and his wife had hunkered down with their dog in the basketball gymnasium with hundreds of other faculty, staff and students under an established “shelter in place” plan, hoping that the 200-foot fire buffer encircling the hillside Malibu campus would work as intended and keep the devastating Woolsey fire at bay. They opted not to evacuate, fearing an escape by car would leave them more vulnerable to the flames.
The plan worked—the campus was largely spared, but the law school is still grappling with the aftermath of not only the fire but a mass shooting at a nearly bar and music venue last week where 20 Pepperdine students were in attendance, including a law student. Among the 12 killed was a Pepperdine undergraduate.
Caron has shared the details of his ordeal of the past week and the school’s plan to move forward after being shuttered for 10 days. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
First off, is everyone in the law school community OK?
We don’t have an exact count of how many students have lost their homes [from the fires]. The university estimates that 70 faculty, staff and student homes were lost or damaged. At the law school, we’re aware of one of each in those categories. We don’t know if there’s more. We had a faculty meeting on [online conference platform] Zoom today, so we checked in with folks and didn’t hear of any other folks who had a lost home.
And the campus? How is it?
It’s remarkable when you see the pictures. Pepperdine was surrounded by fire on three sides. The university and the LA Fire Department have for over 20 years had these plans to shelter in place. The university was built with fire potential in mind. There’s a 200–yard circumference around the university that’s a buffer zone. It’s clear and open grass. That helps to slow down the flames. It gives the firefighters a chance to establish a perimeter around campus. All of that worked, to everyone’s amazement. My house is at the far northwestern-most point of campus. The fire was within five feet of my house.
The fire department has this plan of what they can allow to burn on campus. There’s a big hill that the law school sits atop. The fire was allowed to burn all the way up the hill until right before it got to the law school. So the campus is this surreal area of burned-out areas all around. But we didn’t lose any permanent buildings. There are a lot of spectacular, brave firefighters.
Was there a point on Friday when you feared for your life?
Oh hell yeah. It was incredibly frightening. I think we were all comforted by the fact that this plan had been developed and worked on over 20 years, but you’re always wondering: “Is this one different? Is it so big and horrible that it will overwhelm the defenses?” There was a lot of worry. My wife and I were talking about that we could die here tonight.
Our daughter is a second-year medical student at NYU who was watching everything on social media. She kept hounding us all day to get out of there. We left Friday night with our dog to go to a hotel and manage things from there. We’ve been in a hotel since late Friday night.
Malibu is still under a mandatory evacuation and the university is closed until after the Thanksgiving break, with plans to reopen Nov. 26. What does this mean for the law school? How will you make up that lost class time?
Essentially, we’re going to make up the classes missed, except for one class. We historically have always had a few extra days built into the schedule for this purpose so we have that extra cushion. We’re compressing the finals period a bit and holding classes that first week in December. We thought of extending further into December before the Christmas holiday, but so many students have already bought tickets home that it seemed less desirable. We decided against holding online classes because not all students have access to the internet. But we’re having faculty offer asynchronous lectures that students can watch when they’re able to.
The dean of students is fielding all kinds of calls and emails from students with the same stories: Students left their books, their outlines—and in some cases—laptops behind when they evacuated because they didn’t think they’d be gone for so long. We thought we’d be back there in a couple of days.
There has been a lot to deal with between the shooting and the fire. How are people feeling about things at this point?
Thursday was an extraordinarily moving day on campus. We had a big prayer service Thursday afternoon. Then Thursday night the fire started to hit. It has been quite a wrenching seven days. Different schools have different personalities and different strengths. One of Pepperdine’s main attributes has always been its incredibly strong community. That has really helped with this.
Are you getting support from other law schools in the area?
I’ll give a shout out to the deans at the local law schools: UCLA, USC and Loyola have graciously offered to help our students in any way. Those schools have opened up their law libraries to our students. That’s a very helpful thing to have.
Will it be different once school resumes, given how extensive the fire damage around campus is?
Just seeing the photographs on TV—this is without a doubt the worst fire to hit Malibu. There’s going to have to be a lot of rebuilding. I’m not, by nature, an emotional guy. With the faculty today I was crying like a baby on our Zoom meeting. It was such a gut-wrenching experience.