In summary

Of California’s nearly 150 public colleges and universities, 18 are within areas Cal Fire deems at high risk from wildfires. In addition to evacuation plans, colleges have different fire mitigation tactics they can employ to minimize risk.

As a wall of flame drew closer to the northernmost reaches of the UC Santa Cruz campus, Saxon Stahl knew an evacuation order was imminent. 

Stahl, a student living on campus during summer session, had been following the progress of the CZU Lightning Complex fires that started Aug. 16. By the time the email for voluntary evacuations reached Stahl’s inbox the afternoon of Aug. 20, they leapt at the chance, accepting a voucher to stay at a hotel four miles south. 

They fled the ash raining from the sky, but the smell of campfire lingered still.

Hours later on the 20th, campus police sent all 1,200 students and staff packing under a mandatory evacuation order that was only fully lifted nearly three weeks later.

“It was kind of chaotic in retrospect,” the senior told CalMatters. An assignment due at 5pm the day they relocated to a hotel was only extended to midnight. After eight days of hotel dwelling, Stahl and several dozen other students lived out the rest of their evacuations at San Jose State University.

Many public campuses in wildfire hazards 

That the CZU Fires came within a mile of the northern end of UC Santa Cruz’s borders shouldn’t come as a surprise. The photogenic campus, nestled in a forest of redwoods, is one of several dozen public universities and community colleges near or in a fire hazard severity zone as designated by the state’s fire authority, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

A CalMatters analysis found that 18 public higher-education institutions in California, out of 148, have addresses in these zones. That number excludes campuses whose territories partially stretch into hazard zones but have addresses outside of them or are within a few miles of the zones. Cal Fire ranks these zones by severity — moderate, high and very high — and bases the labels on signs of fire danger, such as topography, weather, wind, fire history and flammable forest debris. The Cal Fire zones also exclude federal lands and local areas that aren’t deemed a very high hazard.

Already this year California endured its largest fire season in recorded history, with more than 4 million acres burned that have claimed 8 lives and damaged or destroyed almost 5,500 structures. Fires, predicted to intensify, could threaten numerous college dorms and school buildings. 

And there’s a lot of wood to burn. Before the Gold Rush, California’s forests had 50 to 70 trees per acre. In 2009, there were 400 trees per acre, the result of decades of fire suppression and public policies that abandoned the purposeful fires practiced by Native American tribes to limit the intensity of forest fires.

Campuses close to a fire hazard severity zone “should definitely look at ways that they can reduce the risk around the campus,” said Steven Hawks, staff chief of Cal Fire’s wildfire planning and engineering division. That means clearing out fallen leaves, removing brush and committing to expensive retrofitting, among other actions, especially for campuses built before fire-resistant building codes that came into effect in 2008. 

While Cal Fire’s hazard zones show severity, they don’t show risk. Hawks and others interviewed for this story stressed that campuses can put in the work to limit the damage caused by fires. Expanding roads for emergency vehicles, swapping out single-pane for dual-pane glass and new roofs are other mitigation techniques campuses near or in fire zones could pursue, Hawks and others said. Meanwhile, some campuses close to fire zones enjoy favorable conditions that can keep wildfires at bay.

Being prepared can only get a campus so far, however, especially with the increasing menace of recent fires. The town of Paradise had a “pretty good” evacuation plan, Hawks said, but the deadly 2018 Camp Fire “burned so intensely and so rapidly” that it cut off some of the town’s evacuation routes, forcing officials to alter plans on the go. 

Just how close is too close before calling an evacuation is impossible to say. The conditions determine the response. “Most structures are destroyed because of an ember,” said Hawks, which are carried by winds ahead of fires, sometimes for several miles. Fire burns faster uphill, so campuses atop an ignited slope stand a greater risk of damage than colleges in valleys where fires burn in the hills above. Of course, if the wind shifts, “all bets are off,” Hawks said. The drier the season, the greater the risk. 

Wildfires are a local response

At UCs, wildfires are a local campus response. Cal Fire issues the evacuation orders but UC campuses implement those orders in conjunction with first responders and regional emergency management personnel. Each campus also has an emergency management director who coordinates emergency planning. During emergency events the director will be at the response center and may lead it, depending on the campus. But campuses keep the UC Office of the President informed. The office knew UC Santa Cruz would declare a campus emergency before it happened, said Amina Assefa, the UC system’s director of emergency management and business continuity.

“When I look at those maps, I see a lot of the state is in the fire hazard zones,” said Assefa. “We are aware of this reality and the challenge that poses.” 

For the the 23-campus California State University system, wildfire responses are largely the domain of campus chancellors and their staff, plus input from the system chancellor, said spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp. 

Don’t forget the dolphins

UC Santa Cruz is bounded by a horseshoe of public land susceptible to wildfire. The CZU fire that licked the terrain within a mile of campus burned to the north and west in mostly high hazard zones.

The sylvan landscape requires constant upkeep to reduce the risk of fire damage. The campus maintains a series of fire roads in the northern campus, where it’s more heavily wooded, for fire truck access. In collaboration with Cal Fire, the university annually clears out excess leaves, branches and trees to reduce the “fuel load” or material that can burn during a wildfire. 

A report on lessons learned about the university’s response is in the works, though university officials shared some details. For one, the campus needs to “increase the sheer tonnage of material” that it clears off the land, said Jean Marie Scott, an associate vice chancellor at UC Santa Cruz who oversees a budget of nearly $15 million in risk and safety services, including the campus police, transportation and fire departments.

Next, the website containing fire updates initially was hosted on physical servers until it was moved to a cloud server in case flames torched the IT equipment. UCSC also wants to ink a memorandum of understanding with the company that runs the coastal boardwalk. That’s where evacuated students and staff waited for resettlement but the campus wants the relationship formalized to move people to safety quicker next time.

The evacuation coincided with a global pandemic, further complicating the campus’s response. Buses that brought students to San Jose State normally fit 40 people but in the era of COVID-19 could only carry 10 each, requiring more vehicles. Students waiting for rides to hotels stood masked in marked off squares measuring 10 by 10 feet to keep space from one another.

The evacuation didn’t include just people. UCSC sent several mammals in its marine lab down to SeaWorld of San Diego and another location for safe harbor after ash from the fire littered the animals’ saltwater pools. The two dolphins, Donley and Rain, rode in a refrigerated truck on their way to San Diego, squeaking and whistling at each other the whole trip.

Proximity isn’t destiny

Other colleges close to a hazard zone are at a low risk of sustaining wildfire damage. Scan the CalMatters interactive map and Humboldt State University sits less than two miles west of an expanse of high fire hazard woodlands. But thanks to a marine layer cloaking the university and the quilt of redwoods surrounding it, “the fuel that sits on the ground of the forest is just constantly moist as a result, and so it’s not a great conductor of fire,” said Cris Koczera, emergency management coordinator at Humboldt State. She can’t recall a single fire in the 20 years she’s worked in disaster planning in the area that came close to the ridge line separating the damp area of the university and the drier forest to the east. 

If emergency strikes, Koczera says Humboldt State has agreements with a fairground in Crescent City and a conference hall in Eureka to temporarily shelter evacuated campus students and staff. If an incident affects those two cities, other CSU campuses can help out, Koczera said.

Chico State also appears just a few miles from a hazard severity zone but the campus is relatively safe because it’s surrounded by city. 

“I don’t think that Chico State as a campus is at risk,” said Jacquelyn Chase, a professor of geography and planning at the university who studies fires. A wildfire that jumped the wildlands boundary into the city “would run out of steam before it got that far in” to damage the campus, she said.

The campus maintains its land in a way that reduces the risk of a wildfire consuming the university, Chase said. Plants are “juicy” because they’re watered often, ground crews pick up the leaves that fall to the ground and the buildings are not that close together, all of which limits ignition and fire spread.

If a crisis does strike, Chico State’s evacuation plan is largely to follow the orders of county and state disaster response officials, said J Marvin Pratt, director of environmental health and safety at Chico State. While the campus could order an evacuation before the rest of the city is issued one, Pratt says that’s unlikely. It didn’t during the 2018 Camp Fire, one of the most destructive in recorded state history.

“It wasn’t directly threatening us. So that’s where it gets back to listening to the professionals and what they have to suggest,” Pratt said, who added that the campus has never needed to evacuate because of a fire.

Saxon Stahl, a fourth year student at UC Santa Cruz, stands outside of the laundry building near their residence hall on Oct. 14, 2020. Stahl, who had voluntarily evacuated campus, returned to their dorm to do some laundry when the mandatory evacuation order was announced. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Saxon Stahl, a fourth year student at UC Santa Cruz, stands outside of the laundry building near their residence hall on Oct. 14, 2020. Stahl, who had voluntarily evacuated campus, returned to their dorm to do some laundry when the mandatory evacuation order was announced. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The Cal State campus also follows UC guidance on managing campus events during days with poor air quality caused by fire. The 2019 report includes a table indicating when events need to move inside or UC employees working outside should put on masks. The number of actions grows the higher the Air Quality Index indicator climbs. The UC has tweaked the guidance some this year, recommending that outdoor events be cancelled rather than move inside because of COVID-19. 

A spared college anchors a community

The College of the Siskiyous, which is encircled by fire hazard zones, came closer to ruin. The campus was evacuated during the Sept. 2014 Boles Fire. The inferno ultimately damaged or destroyed more than 100 structures in the small town of Weed that sits at the base of Mt. Shasta an hour south of the Oregon border. Campus spokesperson Dawn Slabaugh told CalMatters that the campus president made the call because initially it seemed the fire was gunning for the college. “You can step outside into our parking lots and see the fire on the hill that is just directly across the freeway coming in our direction,” she said. “Do you keep it open or wait too long?”

But the fire shifted, barreling toward town and away from the campus. Spared, the college served as a community anchor. Slabaugh said Cal Fire officials conducted town halls for the community of 2,700 residents in the college’s theater for a few days immediately following the blaze. A food assistance program for the area and a Catholic Church temporarily relocated to the campus. 

More work to be done

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo is a sprawling 9,000-acre campus that lies partly in fire-hazard wildland. Conflagrations have approached the campus several times. “Had the wind shifted, it would have readily threatened buildings, including dorms and classrooms on campus,” said Christopher A. Dicus, a renowned professor of wildland fire at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. More recently, the 2020 CZU August fire torched a remote campus site after students, faculty and livestock were safely relocated.  

In recent years Dicus and other fire professionals have argued for stricter rules removing combustible material that’s within five feet of buildings. “Anytime you have anything combustible that is touching a building, that is a really, really bad idea,” he said, adding that vegetation, mulch, and flammable lawn furniture near buildings should either be removed or unable to catch fire. 

A 2020 law creates a new “ember-resistant zone” within five feet of a structure in a fire hazard area. The law could go a long way to making some of Dicus’ recommendations a reality. What won’t be permitted in the zone is still to be determined. The law’s rules now have to be fleshed out by Cal Fire and the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. The campus relies on Cal Fire and the San Luis Obispo fire department, “but we can’t just rely completely on the cavalry to come rescue us,” said Dicus. “We, like all California campuses, have to work with the fire service to shape that battlefield, to be such that the firefighters have a much easier chance at saving our buildings.”

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...

Erica is a data reporter at CalMatters helping develop data-driven graphics and tools. As a California native, she is excited to contribute to important coverage of state issues through engaging projects....