City Hall was filled to capacity last Saturday afternoon by Malibu residents wanting to hear what LA County Fire Department had to say for itself in terms of its response to the Woolsey Fire—including a citywide evacuation that turned into gridlock on Nov. 9, a lack of fire trucks and air support to fight the fire, and the fact that 670 structures within the City of Malibu burned down—sometimes while idle fire trucks refused to help. The other big issue is whether fire codes on home rebuilds will require costly changes, like 20-foot wide driveways and hammerhead turnarounds.

The two-hour-long meeting was kicked off by Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby and a fire video, and included input from Chief Deputy David Richardson and Deputy Chiefs Thomas Ewald and Vince Pena. The LA County Sheriff’s Department was also represented in the room. The fire department’s general presentation was followed by answers to some audience questions. It was not clear that any of the officials had been in Malibu during the fire. 

Fire Department Town Hall

LA County Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Ewald (right) answers a question submitted by an audience member, while Fire Chief Daryl Osby (center) looks on.

At times, the audience became impatient and disbelieving, erupting into snickers and yelling out comments. A group sympathetic to the fire department applauded what they said on several occasions. When Osby brought City Manager Reva Feldman up to the front of the room, some started booing. Her reply was, “I didn’t start the fire, and I wasn’t responsible for putting it out.”

Wagner, acting as peacemaker, got up a number of times to calm people down, and prevented the meeting from spiraling out of control. 

“I share your frustrations, but we need to have a dialogue and a protocol. Let’s give these gentlemen the courtesy they deserve,” he said at one point.

Opening comments about the initial firefight

The fire video was meant to demonstrate how quickly the fire reached Malibu, giving fire officials little time to plan and react. Woolsey jumped the Ventura (101) Freeway at 5:30 a.m., reached parts of Malibu by 10:30, and then spread throughout western Malibu in six hours. Osby pointed out that the state has been in extreme drought conditions for six of the last seven years.

“The day of the fire was unprecedented,” he said. “On Nov. 8, there were three fires: the Camp Fire, the Hill Fire in Ventura County and the Woolsey Fire. [...] The Woolsey Fire started in Ventura County, but they already had all of their resources committed to the Hill Fire. So we made a robust response to it, along with the City of LA, with pilots flying all night. This was unlike any previous fire, with winds up to 70 miles per hour, and we did the best we could.”

“Where the fire started, near Rocketdyne, is very difficult terrain,” Richardson added. “We had a robust response with aircraft that began at 2:30 p.m., but it was dark by 5:30 and then the aircraft are grounded. The wind was howling during this time. I can’t tell you what an awful feeling it is to contact all additional resources for 50 additional strike teams, and what a kick in the gut it is not to get any because of multiple fires in the state.” 

Why more super scoopers and aircraft weren’t involved in fighting the fire response

Pena added that although fixed-wing aircraft and scoopers are grounded at night by regulation, the department’s two Firehawk helicopters operated continuously. Friday morning, the fixed wings were grounded because of wind, and the super scoopers couldn’t get to Malibu because of wind turbulence and the smoke plume. 

Mike Sagely, a senior pilot working that day, told the audience, “These were some of the most challenging flying conditions I’ve ever seen.”

Why more fire trucks didn’t come to help

“LA County relies on a mutual aid system with resources throughout California. In 2003, there were over 1,200 fire engines available through mutual aid, and today there are only 700,” Richardson detailed.

“We required a significant amount of resources from mutual aid partners (other fire departments), and those weren’t made available. There was no significant assistance,” Osby explained. 

Early reports from the Camp Fire claimed as many as 200 fatalities; in the end, the total was 88. But because a fire department’s first goal is to save lives before property, most of the state’s resources were directed to the Camp Fire, which left Malibu holding the bag when it came to getting additional help.

Pena claimed there were 45 strike teams “out there” during the fire. A strike team is five fire engines and one commander. 

“Our resources chased the fire all night, but the infrastructure of the area collapsed in terms of power poles being down across the road everywhere, [making most of the corridors and canyons to Malibu impassable],” Pena said.

Osby pointed out resources were also consumed by citizens calling the fire department directly about fire-related issues: “We had 900 more emergency calls than usual that day, from people who said they were trapped; that had to be investigated.”

Why fire trucks in Malibu refused to fight fires or said they were waiting for orders

When asked why three fire trucks refused to help a neighborhood with defensible space, saying they “didn’t have orders” to do so, there was no straightforward answer from any of the fire officers present. Some looked incredulous and seemed to have no prior knowledge that this type of refusal to help put out a fire had been observed and reported by dozens of people in Malibu.

“I don’t know why they said they were awaiting orders,” Ewald responded. He elaborated on the chain of command, emphasizing it was up to individual fire captains to assess whether it’s safe to go into a specific situation, depending on brush clearance and other factors. He also explained that some of the captains working on Friday and Saturday were at close to 40 hours without sleep and perhaps making “bad decisions.”

Another audience member reported, “10 fire trucks sat there for three-and-a-half hours while 19 houses burned down.” Another said, “Not one of the fire engines at Zuma Beach would respond, because they said they didn’t know the area.”

“If we had firefighters out there who weren’t engaged, then I’m disappointed also,” Osby remarked.

“Maybe it’s a training issue,” Richardson offered.

Pena said parking lots at Zuma and Pepperdine were used as staging areas, which is why some people may have thought the firefighters were watching houses burn while not doing anything. “Identifying where the fire is and where it’s going takes time,” Pena said. He also indicated that some firefighters went to those staging areas to rest after working 48 hours straight.

Wagner confirmed to Osby that these types of stories were true—saying his own house had burned because a firetruck from Riverside refused to assist him. 

“All we saw were taillights,” said one disgruntled resident.

Why it took over five hours to drive to Santa Monica during the emergency evacuation

The fire department was asked why the mandatory evacuation was handled so poorly, resulting in traffic gridlock from Malibu all the way to Santa Monica, taking evacuees five or six hours. 

“The 101 jump was the trigger to evacuate 250,000 people in a matter of hours. I know the evacuations weren’t perfect,” he said to a jeering audience.

Fire Department Town Hall

Locals fill the civic theater at City Hall for a town hall meeting with key members of the LA County Fire Department.

Osby indicated the evacuations would have gone better if California Highway Patrol hadn’t taken hours to clear the two westbound lanes for eastbound evacuation traffic. 

No one asked why evacuees weren’t also evacuated north toward Camarillo. KNX, the only radio station with fire information after about 9 a.m., reported continuously that evacuees going toward Oxnard would be turned back around by the authorities. It turns out that was not true—KNX had bad information, and no one from the city called to correct them. 

Why eastern Malibu was evacuated, despite no fire

Richardson said, “Life safety is rule one, and Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Williams works to identify, very early on, the zones for evacuation [...] People not evacuating affects rescues. Limited resources have to be moved around in order to check up on people that didn’t evacuate and then have to be rescued.”

“There’s also no guarantee the wind wouldn’t push the fire into new areas, and the fire’s path wasn’t predictable,” Ewald said. 

When asked why eastern Malibu was kept under evacuation for so long, Pena explained, “The subject of repopulation is a joint decision that includes utility companies. We had over 1,000 power poles replaced, and there were fires in Malibu Canyon that crews continued to fight for five or six days. If the fire isn’t contained and there are utility issues, the evacuation will stay in effect.”

How the fire department will help Malibu rebuild

“We’re committed to the rebuilding of Malibu,” Osby continued, “And we also have that commitment from waterworks, public health (septic systems) and building safety. It’s our overall objective to rebuild a safer, more resilient city because fires will happen again. We have fire codes for a reason—because people have died.” 

In recent weeks, Osby talked about fire codes that require 20-foot wide driveways, hammerhead turnarounds and water flow of 1,250 gallons per minute; at the meeting he expressed a willingness to “look at each property” on a case-by-case basis. He said the department would commit to adding additional staff to Malibu, and working closely with those who write city building codes.

“I’m not going to give you a blanket statement to go for it,” he said. “There’s a lot in play—sprinkler systems, et cetera. But we will be reasonable in terms of what’s safe. We’ll be looking at individual situations.”  

Several audience members said they need more definitive answers on what was required exactly, before deadlines and before they spent money on architectural plans because the city won’t sign off without fire department approval.

“We’re going to have a one-stop shop here [in Malibu],” Osby replied. “I can’t make decisions right here this minute, but our commitment is to talk to you before you have architectural fees.”

Why Water District 29 isn’t required to have back-up generators

When the power goes out due to a fire, electric pumps that connect to some of the big water tanks of the water district cut out—meaning water can’t be used by the fire department. 

Osby said that was a concern for the fire service, and officials were looking at statewide legislation to remedy that situation. “Water is our best friend,” he said. 

Closing remarks

Osby repeatedly said he would be sitting down with the City of Malibu as well as independent consultants commissioned by LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl to identify “successes and lessons learned” from this fire. Some of the issues to be discussed with the city will include getting supplies to people who do not evacuate, the establishment of volunteer fire forces and reviewing fire photos and videos submitted by residents.

Both Osby and Feldman have said 50,000 homes in the Woolsey Fire footprint were saved and only 1,000 homes were lost—but no one whose house burned down seemed impressed by that fact, with many seemingly not convinced it was factual.

“We are truly empathetic and have a high sense of sorrow to the people whose homes were destroyed,” Osby said. “We have 60 cities in our district, and as your chief, I take responsibility. Every day, the firefighters put their lives on the line and it was no different in this fire. The first firefighters on the scene fought for 48 hours with no relief.

“From our perspective, we are extremely proud of what we do, and they did the best they could with what they had,” the chief said. “They’re working right now to protect life and property [...] I’d like you to understand that when you see your firefighters locally, they did all they could.”

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