We just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Woolsey Fire this weekend in numerous locations in Malibu, although “celebrate” is really not the right word. “Commemorated” is really more accurate. Still, 12 months post-fire we still don’t know why 750-plus homes burned in greater Malibu, why some fire engines stood idle in Malibu awaiting orders while those Malibu homes burned. But this week a new report analyzing the fire came out—a report not done by County of Los Angeles, or the LA County Fire Department or by the City of Malibu or any of their consultants. This report was done by a highly regarded, objective, independent group that examines fires and there are some startling conclusions about the management of the Woolsey Fire.
According to the report, the reason the homes were allowed to burn was that a command was issued that Friday morning to the strike teams to ignore property protection and concentrate on “life safety and 9-1-1 calls.” No one can quibble with the idea that saving life has priority over saving property, but that’s apparently not what happened here that day. Those units were ordered to stand down unless they got orders, but what they hadn’t anticipated was that the 9-1-1 system would be totally overloaded and their communication system was also inadequate to handle the volume, make the decisions and convey orders to their strike teams in Malibu. The practical effect of their command decision was to idle what engines were already here in Malibu and essentially condemn us to burn.
Some will accuse me of being a Monday morning quarterback, and there is some truth to that. It’s easy after the fact to say they should have done this and not that. In the heat of battle, often they’re required to make decisions on incomplete information, and sometimes those decisions are wrong but that happens in war and this fire was war. The problem is that in all the previous reports and in the multitude of meetings that we all attended, no governmental official ever said they were under orders to ignore property protection and I assume hold themselves in reserve.
We have a full story in this week’s newspaper by Hans Laetz, about the report and its findings. If you want to read the full report, go to laepf.org/woolsey-fire and then compare it to the county’s reports and also the city’s reports, which are all online. You decide for yourself if there was a cover-up. If we are to rely on these public agencies in the future, we have to believe they are telling us the truth, and at this point I must admit my faith is badly shaken.
So, the question becomes, where do we go from here? First, we have to confront the realities.
1. We have to rely on ourselves to save our homes. Citizens can’t stop a wildfire or a conflagration. They can put out small fires caused by flares and sparks before they become big fires, but they need equipment and training and support from the city to do it.
2. It’s obvious from the Woolsey Fire that some people have to stay to fight the fire. Many did in Woolsey and saved many homes that might have burned, but it is not without serious risk for those who stay.
3. If people are going to stay and fight to protect the neighborhoods, we need the cooperation of Cal Fire, the sheriff’s department and the fire departments—in fact, all of the governmental agencies—and that’s not easy. They hate it when they see civilians intruding on their turf and will fight it, but I don’t care. They don’t have the troops to do what needs to be done to protect our homes and, yes, it would be better if they did it, but they are not going to do it. All that support coming from outside fire agencies isn’t worth very much because they don’t know the turf and they are not about to risk their men or equipment, as the Woolsey Fire amply proved.
4. We need some sort of Malibu fire auxiliary, something like fire wardens in every neighborhood, who know where every hydrant, every pool, every pump, every hookup, every water storage tank is located. They also need to know where the safe spaces are located, where a fire engine can turn around and stay safely until the fire passes through. They need some sort of official status, and some uniform coat so they can get through the numerous road blocks, and be recognized by outside fire departments.
It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to require training, but it is doable. Our climate is changing. It’s hotter and drier and fire is not going to go away and we have to live with that as the new normal.
This Monday, there was a packed-house event at City Hall to honor the veterans of World War II who are almost all in their 90s now. It was hosted by the City of Malibu, Pepperdine University and the Malibu Navy League. The master of ceremonies was longtime Malibu resident, retired US Navy Captain John Payne. It brought back memories of when I was a kid and the men came back from WWII. They were all young and fit and yearning to raise their families and to get back to work and go to college and buy homes and live in peace. Now, they are old and their ranks are quickly thinning. But the event reminded us all that America was built on successive generations doing something for the next generation, which seems to be something that many of us have forgotten in this very contentious time we live in. Our individual successes are built on the backs of those who came before us, and occasionally it’s good to be reminded of that. For all of those involved in putting on the event, well done. It made us all proud to be Americans.