College Campuses Close as Wildfires Ravage California
College Campuses Close as Wildfires Ravage California

College Campuses Close as Wildfires Ravage California

Universities are still assessing the extent of the damage; field sites are at risk and some equipment has been damaged.

Nov 14, 2018
Kerry Grens

ABOVE: Brush burns in the Woolsey Fire in southern California.
© ISTOCK.COM, JORGE VILLALBA

Several college campuses in California are closed as wildfires rage in the state. At Pepperdine University in Malibu, the campus remains inaccessible because of the Woolsey Fire that has already burned around 100,000 acres and is about half contained. Staff and students who sheltered in place at the college are in isolation, hunkering down in the library, as roads in the area are closed.

“It’s essentially an island,” says Jay Brewster, a biology professor at Pepperdine, whose home is on campus. Since Friday (November 8), he has been tending to the university’s cell culture facilities, making sure cells in the freezers are safe, and otherwise holding down his department’s fort until more faculty members can return to help.

“We’ve had fires before, and this one was really close,” he tells The Scientist. Flames burned the ornamental landscaping around buildings. He was in Pepperdine’s Keck Science Center as the fire neared and the halls filled with smoke. No buildings suffered structural damage, “but we know the particulates are in the building,” he adds, which could affect sensitive laboratory equipment.

Hundreds of acres of vegetation around the campus burned, including plots of land that have served as field sites. Javier Monzon, an ecologist at Pepperdine, says camera traps that students had deployed to capture images of wildlife were destroyed by the fire. Other field equipment, such as compact plant monitoring stations, weathered the smoke and soot and have not been damaged.

Pepperdine remains closed through the Thanksgiving holiday, and according to an update on the college’s website, the campus will require “significant clean-up.”

In northern California, where the Camp Fire has claimed the lives of 48 people so far, California State University, Chico, has closed its campus through November 16. A survey of Chico’s students and staff finds 727 people had to leave their homes and 166 people lost their houses completely to the fire

Russell Shapiro, the chair of geological and environmental sciences at Chico, tells The Scientist in an email that students and faculty are still determining whether research projects have suffered as a result of the Camp Fire. “We do significant field work in the areas so it could be an issue,” he says.

Poor air quality from the smoke prompted the University of California, Davis, to shutter its campus yesterday (November 13) and today, and California State University, Sacramento, did the same. California State University, Channel Islands, closed its campus yesterday and today and cancelled classes through the Thanksgiving holiday.

The fires offer an opportunity for scientists to study the effects of such intense disturbances to ecosystems. For instance, a shrub species (Malosma laurina) that once dominated the chaparral habitat of Pepperdine’s campus had previously experienced a die-off from fungal infections, and the surviving plants have now burned up. “But they aren’t killed because the roots are still there,” says Stephen Davis, a plant biologist at Pepperdine. Sprouts will shoot up in about a week, and Davis is keen to see whether they’ll continue to suffer from the fungal disease. The fire offers a “natural experiment” never conducted before to see whether the fungus will return. “To my knowledge, no one has seen that,” he says.

It’s one of the few bright spots of an otherwise devastating event. Three people have died in the Woolsey Fire. And for the Pepperdine community, the disaster comes as the school was already in mourning. On Wednesday last week, a first-year student at Pepperdine was among 13 people who died during a mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks, California. “That was a really devastating moment for the university,” Brewster says, “and then the fires followed just after.”