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An independent, nongovernment review of Woolsey Fire reactions by the city, the county fire department and the county sheriff that was issued Friday was not very kind to the three government agencies that handled the crisis in Malibu. It paints a picture of poor communication, failure to utilize local volunteers and failure to support local residents who ignored evacuation orders and saved much of western Malibu. 

Much of the focus of the report, conducted by the LA Emergency Preparedness Foundation, was on failures by the county sheriff’s and fire departments, with some attention paid to issues at the city level.

The report blasted Los Angeles County Fire officials for failing to warn Malibu that its fire trucks were about to be overrun at 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 9, as the Woolsey Fire clawed into neighborhoods along the Ventura (101) Freeway Corridor. That caused an order to go out to all strike teams: Do not protect structures, wait for 9-1-1 dispatches to rescue human beings. 

But those emergency calls were not coming through. The county’s after action report stated that 9-1-1 and radio dispatch systems were overloaded with more than 1,800 calls from within the fire area, compared to a countywide average of 1,100 calls per day. 

The dispatch snafu prevented commands from being issued to the 26 trucks that made it through the burning mountains to Malibu, many of which idled while homes burned down within sight. 

“This change in (fire department) mission was a major factor in the loss of public trust and a contributor to emotional distress,” the report concluded. The decision to cease defending property and wait for life support calls was not communicated to the public, a “failure to communicate directly and honestly with the public.”

“Clear, timely and frequent communications are essential during a crisis event,” and that did not happen, the report said.

Poor communication was also faulted at the roadblocks staffed by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, presided over by unyielding deputies who rejected any and all requests for residents to enter or re-enter areas. Critically needed food, medicine and fuel for resupply to weary citizen firefighters was blocked more than a week after the fire.

“Local residents were often treated with disrespect, threatened or made to feel like captives,” the analysis said.

Most of the criticism was aimed at the fire department and county sheriff. Malibu’s government was rebuked for waiting to release important information until city council members could appear at news conferences. 

“Critical information needs to be pushed out to the public and not wait for press conferences if it is vital to the public welfare,” the report said. “The public can handle bad news. All messaging must be clear and honest.”

And the report aimed special criticism at Malibu City Council members who appeared at the first post-fire community meeting at Santa Monica High School on Nov. 13.

There, “the first 30 minutes was spent with government officials congratulating themselves and sharing personal experiences instead of immediately addressing the needs of fire victims,” the report said.

As late as three weeks ago, LA County Fire officials were still pointing at the 57,000 structures saved and low death toll as proof of an enormously successful firefighting effort. The vast majority of the saved structures were over the hill near the 101, while western Malibu suffered far more serious damage on a per-capita basis.

“I believe that, when the history is written, the Woolsey Fire will go down as one of the most successful operations in the history of the fire service in the United States,” said Fire Captain Tony Imbrenda, the LA County fire chief public information officer, last month in an interview with KBUU News

The new report casts a far different conclusion.

“Decision processes were unclear and not transparent. The early Friday morning command to strike teams to ignore property protection and concentrate on ‘life safety and 9-1-1 calls’ was a significant change that was not effectively conveyed to the public,” it said. 

“Citizen protective action measures ... were complicated by official obstruction and lack of sensitivity and understanding. Citizens found themselves abandoned and their critical needs unmet. Out of necessity, individuals pulled together to organize and innovate to meet the needs of their families and community members,” the study found. 

Most of those decisions were made by commanders of the sheriff’s office and LA County Fire Department, and imposed on Malibu city officials.

Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer noted that Malibu city government officials are powerless to tell outside agencies what to do in Malibu.

“We are at the bottom of the totem pole,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We don’t control what the county does; we don’t control what the state does; we don’t control what (Southern California) Edison does; we don’t control what the (school) district or the fire department or the sheriff do.

“We try to exert as much, impress upon them our needs—advocate for our citizens, advocate for the city,” she went on. “But we don’t get to tell them what to do.”

The foundation conducted interviews with more than 60 Malibu community members, but no one inside City Hall. 

It found that “a gap existed between the services of the public sector and the needs of the private sector... The emergent volunteers filled the gap on an ad hoc basis: meeting the needs of people with food, water, feeding operations, communications, sanitation, medical supplies, information sharing, comfort and ember suppression following fires.”

Malibu officials and LA County Fire were blasted for a “lack of transparency in official decision processes during the Woolsey fire, which compounded the trauma of the fire.”

Evacuation processes were poorly communicated, not well thought through and placed people leaving at significant risk, the study concludes.

“The Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) were not activated and ignored when inquiries were officially submitted,” the independent report states. “Poor communications were demonstrated by government agencies (city and county).

“The poor information flow reduced the public’s ability to adapt and contributed to a defensiveness from all involved,” it continued.

City officials and CERT members have directly contradicted the report’s findings, and said they were activated by City Manager Reva Feldman early in the disaster. Some CERT members had evacuated Malibu as the fire passed through and were not allowed to report for duty in the city by overzealous sheriff’s deputies enforcing a hard-nosed, no-exceptions evacuation zone.

In something that was not emphasized by the LA County After Action Report, the new analysis notes that stubborn residents ignoring “mandatory” evacuation orders “were mostly successful” in saving houses and “have done so over multiple fires.”

“While an imprecise estimate, several hundred structures were saved by their endeavors,” the report said. No such estimate was in the LA County After Action Report. 

The Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation noted that its study team prioritizes “life-safety considerations and does not advocate staying in defending homes and businesses without proper authorization, training, certification, equipment, communications and established safe refuge areas.”  

But it went on to criticize the lack of such training and certification efforts. 

Its conclusion was repeated several times: A profound loss of confidence in the city, sheriff and fire department. 

“The evidence points to a migration of trust away from civic processes,” the report said. 

“Truth is an essential element needed for any collective action,” the report stated. “The 2018 Woolsey Fire has resulted in a concerning erosion of public trust in civic institutions. Establishing processes for community healing and restoration of public trust is necessary before any other movement forward as possible. The learnings from the Woolsey fire contribute to a resolve that meaningful action is needed.”

The report made seven major findings: 

* A single set of emergency management functions were irregular and slow to engage. The report recommended plan revisions and updated training exercise programs.

* The evacuation process was slapped together, confusing and thousands of cars were stuck in traffic for up to six hours while evacuating through fire prone areas. The city is already about to finalize comprehensive evacuation plans with provisions for traffic management personnel deployment, contra flow and media updates must be provided.

* The county was faulted for making major life-changing decisions and not communicating them, such as the early morning Nov. 9 command to fire strike teams to ignore property protection and concentrate on “life safety and 9-1-1 calls.”

* Limited communication and incorrect information damaged awareness of the larger situational picture for a protracted period amongst all stakeholders. The report said information was not released, and that both traditional media and social media should be used when delivering messages to the public.

* Mutual aid resources were overtaxed and slow to arrive. The report said Malibu is going to have to deal with a that reality forever, and should use certified, trained volunteers for fire following support and suppression

And the two biggest criticisms included the official obstruction and lack of sensitivity and understanding for citizens saving property in the city. The report notes that indifference caused individuals to pull together to organize and innovate.

The report stressed that the county fire and sheriff agencies need to support such efforts.

Similarly, the report criticized the outside agencies for preventing thousands of residents from returning to their homes for an extended time compared to previous return times after fire. The obstruction resulted in an extra stress and challenges.

The study’s co-author, Brent Woodworth, said in a KBUU News special broadcast Saturday that all is not lost, and said the City of Malibu in particular is taking good steps. 

“They are starting to address a number of changes, and that evacuation plan is a good example,” he said.

“They have got a great PIO (public information officer), they have the right intentions, they have a good city council; let’s just work together, let’s have some common sense, and let’s make this a safer, more-resilient community.”

The entire interview can be heard at KBUU’s website: radiomalibu.net/kbuu-interview-with-laepf/

(1) comment

Daniel Schag

It's been my impression, drawing from many data points, that CALFIRE really caused a lot of problems. They dropped in, asserted control, and held meetings before they issued any orders. That wouldn't be the first time that CALFIRE was blamed for hindering fire fighting responses. I didn't see a reference to CALFIRE (or I just missed it).

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