In hot, dry winds, amid drought conditions, the Woolsey Fire of November 2018 spread rapidly through the Santa Monica Mountains, burning nearly 100,000 acres of parched wildlands and neighborhoods alike. The fire killed three area residents.
Experts after the fact described Woolsey as the “largest, fastest wildfire disaster in County history.” Wind gusted up to 50 miles per hour, allowing the fire to “jump” the eight-lane Ventura (101) Freeway from the San Fernando Valley into the Santa Monica Mountains. From there, it burned all the way to the ocean in a matter of hours.
The fire was a natural disaster compounded by layers of real and perceived human error and ineptitude: from the powerlines that sparked the blaze to the botched evacuation and the inability for fire engines to navigate the mountains or communicate while power was out, many elements combined to make it “one of the most devastating wildfires in the entire history of the county,” according to Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
Before embers had cooled, public outcry arose alleging failure by all levels of government. In response, LA County Supervisors launched an investigation into the man-made issues surrounding the fire — from preparation to emergency response and everything in between — commissioning an extensive after-action report, which came in the form of a 203-page review by the independent consulting firm Citygate Associates, LLC. Published in November 2019, that review also included 86 recommendations for improvements.
On Tuesday, Feb. 8, LA County Supervisors voted unanimously, 5-0, to lay the report to rest. Kuehl emphasized that the report’s findings would be useful to help prepare for and respond to future disasters.
“The plan included 86 recommendations and I’m happy to report that 80 percent of those have already now been implemented,” Kuehl said at the meeting. “They will go on to improve overall safety during states of emergency countywide.”
Tuesday’s motion described the ongoing work toward improvements: “During the last quarter of 2021, Citygate conducted one-on-one meetings with representatives from the principal departments to discuss in depth the progress made by each department. Based on Citygate’s assessment (and as detailed in the attached final report), the departments have completed 81 percent of the recommendations in the AAP [after action plan] despite the disruption and workload increase caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Of the remaining 19 percent of recommendations, the County motion said some would require long term commitments; others were not feasible in the near term at all.
Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti, who was first elected to city leadership in 2020 but who has lived in Malibu since the 1970s, said many of the report’s recommendations have already been implemented.
Speaking with the Daily Press, Grisanti pointed to several key recommendations that had been fulfilled, beginning with No. 8: “Continue to train officers and commanders on TIER (Take Initiative Engage and Report) for Fire Front Following and Life Safety First implementation to allow flexible engagement.”
Grisanti, who has in the time since Woolsey joined a neighborhood volunteer fire brigade, called the item a key improvement in preparation for an inevitable future fire.
“That is something that was drastically missing,” Grisanti said. “The people who responded to the fire were expected to wait for orders, and it resulted in a very bad reaction from the community. This thing here will also enable the fire brigades we have in Malibu to interact and be part of helping them respond to the next fire.”
When asked to elaborate, Grisanti described the frustration of residents whose homes burned in the hours and days after the initial fire front passed through. Grisanti said local brigades would be empowered to assist professional firefighters “in the fire-front following role,” mopping up embers.
“That is a role that was totally ignored during Woolsey,” Grisanti said, describing residents requesting help from idle fire engines in the days following the fire.
“I know a couple of people who are successful in convincing out-of-area firefighters to come to their house and save their house and their neighbor’s house,” Grisanti said. “But for the most part, we got [told that] people were waiting for orders. And that is where the independent action portion of this comes into effect, and will make people much more pleased with the fire department in the aftermath [of the next fire].”
Another notable improvement, according to Grisanti, was recommendation No. 12: “Ensure incident response / tactical maps can be sustained without internet connection and digitally or physically transferred to outside resources.”
With cellular communication down and smoke blocking satellite connections, fire engines were stuck waiting for orders or unable to enter neighborhoods because of the risk of getting stuck on dead-end streets or in deadly “box canyons” where fire can trap engine crews.
Kuehl also addressed improved communications in her remarks at the Tuesday meeting.
“LA County Fire also acquired a new mobile command software,” Kuehl said. “It’s been field tested and will be deployed for department-wide use next fire season. In addition, their new handheld and vehicle mounted mobile radios and computers [are] being deployed for all operational units.”
Kuehl further pointed to increased capacity for the animal evacuation centers in Castaic, supporting evacuations for homes and ranches located in LA County including the Malibu area.
“So, although there’s plenty of work still to be done, you can see that improvements have been made, both on the ground and system wide,” Kuehl said, adding, “My heartfelt gratitude to OEM [Office of Emergency Management]; they are going to take up the torch of overseeing the remaining recommendations and all the departments that are really put forth an effort to continuously improve safety for all of our county residents.”
Of the recommendations that have not been implemented, two were identified as “not feasible.” One of those, No. 30, was an exemption to clean air standards for diesel vehicles. The other, No. 77, was an item that would potentially save burned-out residents thousands of dollars and months of red tape: “Work with FEMA to ensure inclusion of foundation removal reimbursement when necessary. This is not included in FEMA’s debris removal program, which may be based on tornado and hurricane emergencies that do not typically affect foundations.”
FEMA’s program to remove debris in the wake of natural disasters does not cover demolition and removal of home foundations, leaving the expense to private homeowners.
Grisanti expressed regret that the recommendation was labeled “not feasible” in the final County document.
“Number 77 is the one that really was terrible for us,” Grisanti said. “When you have a situation like that, foundations get cooked. They will not support a house again and you need to remove them. And for FEMA to not include foundation removal reimbursement was a terrible mistake. And apparently they’re still working on it, but FEMA has been recalcitrant.”