Beginning the moment the Woolsey Fire leaped over the Ventura (101) Freeway before dawn on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, Malibu came face to face with a stream of disappointments, harsh realities and bad luck—extreme weather, poor communication, failures of preparation and lack of resources chief among them.
Now, those realities are being codified into the County of Los Angeles After Action Review of the Woolsey Fire Incident, a 200-page report that seeks to lay out exactly what happened with the Woolsey Fire, from beginning to end. The review was compiled by the office of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and a task force of 30 or more local officials.
That report, which has been released as a draft, is available at lacounty.gov/recovery/report. Comments may be submitted through that webpage by Nov. 8, or made at a public meeting on Sunday, Nov. 17, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Agoura High School.
One key fact the report highlights was the lack of resources put forward to fight Woolsey, which broke out moments after the Hill Fire was reported in Newbury Park—and late in a day that began around midnight with the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks.
“If you were in Ventura County and about to endure the Hill Fire, those crews had been up since [the] Borderline [shooting],” Stewart Gary, one of the authors of the report, said during the first public meeting to discuss the report’s findings on Saturday, Oct. 27.
“Hill immediately drew all hands on deck. It was the problem of the moment—more dangerous than Woolsey,” Gary continued.
But, according to Gary, it was a “myth” that Woolsey’s firefighting resources were depleted because area firefighting agencies had sent crews up to Paradise to fight the Camp Fire.
“Myth No. 2: Because of Paradise—and even Hill—Woolsey did not receive the initial attack units it should have. Only slightly true. Upon initial attack, only one aircraft was unavailable to Woolsey, it was a Ventura County helicopter—yeah, it was on Hill Fire,” Gary said.
A surprise to some, that statement was reflected in the timeline printed in the draft report, which stated: “6:33 AM - The Camp Fire ignites east of Paradise, California, and expands in size at an unprecedented rate. Statewide firefighting resources shift to address the growing threat of this fire that will evolve to become the deadliest wildfire in California history. Due to local weather/fire conditions, California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Region 1, including Los Angeles County, does not send resources to the Camp Fire on November 8.”
But, mutual aid requests—meaning, engines that may have been deployed from other agencies—were stretched thin due to other fires:
“Simultaneous neighboring and northern California fire incidents caused fire command’s mutual aid requests to go significantly unfilled. Of those filled, the majority arrived after the fire reached Malibu,” the report states. On Nov. 8, 58 percent of fire engine requests went unfilled, with 50 percent untilled on Nov. 9 and 53 percent unfilled on Nov. 10.
Many of the resources that were allocated did not make it to Malibu until after the fire crossed the Ventura (101) Freeway.
“That morning in Malibu, the local engines were all that were present: seven,” Gary described—that was at 9 a.m., nearly four hours after the fire jumped. That was compared to 285 engines that had been deployed to fight the fire on the other side of the freeway.
The report paints a stark picture of Malibu’s condition as Woolsey rolled toward the ocean—one most locals could attest to.
“Due to the Unable to Fill (UTF) requests and the fire storm’s impact on roads through the mountains, units in Malibu consisted only of locally assigned units and a very small quantity of mutual aid. This is why the public observed that the normally heavy fire unit response was not occurring. As Friday progressed, more mutual aid arrived slowly in the Malibu area. Before noon on Friday, the Malibu coast only had between 7-26 engines, not the 100-200 mutual aid engines needed to immediately defend structures in highly developed areas,” the report stated.
The issue was compounded by a massive influx of 9-1-1 emergency calls, Gary said.
“Residents who refused to evacuate generated an enormous volume of 9-1-1 calls,” Gary described—an estimated 1,800 from within the fire zone, which drew firefighting resources away from property protection. Many of those, he added, ended up being nonemergency calls or issues that were resolved by the time firefighters arrived.
About 35 members of the public came to speak during the Saturday, Oct. 26, meeting, among the more than 100 who attended the public meeting.
Issues raised by the public included disregard for CERT (Community Emergency Resources Team) knowledge and support, difficulty working around roadblocks, frustrations over lack of firefighting in Malibu and ongoing issues with Southern California Edison.
One issue raised by Lisa McKeen, who lost her home in Malibu Park, was that the fire trucks that did come to Malibu were not seen actively battling flames. McKeen said about 10 trucks were lined up near where her neighborhood had evacuated to Zuma Beach, but they were not moving.
“We sat there, stood there, paced back and forth, we were docile,” McKeen described. “We didn’t come up to them, we didn’t yell, but we watched the fire start marching toward our neighborhood... Nothing, nothing.
“We never got a real explanation why,” she continued. When McKeen and her husband drove back up, they saw their house just beginning to catch on fire, after the initial firestorm had passed, “so we watched it burn while it looked like annihilation around us. We don’t have any true story about what happened to those fire trucks. It’s all speculation, still, in our neighborhood.”