A Perfect Storm Drove Woolsey Fire

The Task Force was headed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and consisted of members of the fire department, law enforcement, emergency response agencies, State Parks, National Park Service, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, the mayors of Calabasas, Malibu, Westlake Village, and Agoura Hills, and local organizations. Photo by Annemarie Donkin

Driven by powerful Santa Ana winds, the Woolsey Fire burned more than 97,000 acres and is now considered the most destructive wildfire in Los Angeles County’s history.

“It was the perfect fire storm of conditions,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl during an October 26, Woolsey Fire Task Force meeting to present a draft report on the fire and hear public comments. “While LA County was prepared for a serious emergency, the Woolsey Fire was a disaster of unprecedented dynamics and scale.” 

As a result of the deadly fire that burned in November 2018, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors hired Citygate Associates, experienced in wildfire analysis, to create an after-action report to determine the cause, evacuation orders, responses, and recommendations for the next disaster.

The meeting began with a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation from Citygate’s Stu Gary, who talked the audience through the 204-page report and offered data about where the fire started, how it spread so quickly, and the many factors that prevented a fully effective response by firefighters and law enforcement personnel.

The October meeting also included angry, heartfelt, and often tearful public testimony from residents of the affected areas, many of whom lost homes in Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Malibu, and Malibou Lake. They expressed the opinion that the lack of firefighter response in the high wildfire-prone communities led to loss of life and property.

Public testimony was often critical of ineffective evacuation notices that were issued to communities directly in the path of the fire, including Topanga, which thankfully did not burn, but whose residents lost power (unrelated to the fire) around 6 a.m. Friday, November 8 when the fire started, until late Saturday, November 9. They were unable to receive alert notifications, use their telephones, cell phones, or access television.

The final report, presented on November 17, includes 155 findings and 86 actionable recommendations, and was approved by a unanimous vote of the Woolsey Fire Task Force during a meeting at Agoura Hills High School. 

According to L.A. County, Citygate conducted more than 100 interviews and reviewed more than 4,700 documents; analyzed the causes and origins of the fire; the deployment of firefighting resources; the distribution and adequacy of firefighting resources; including water, evacuation notification and procedures; strategic communications during the fire and its aftermath; and community repopulation notification and procedures. The report also outlined steps to better ensure future community safety in light of heightened fire risk.

The final Woolsey Fire After Action Report determined that emergency responders were unprepared to deal with the extent of the fire that claimed three lives, scorched 151 square miles, destroyed more than 1,600 structures, and caused nearly $5 billion in damages.

The Task Force was headed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and consisted of members of the fire department, law enforcement, State Parks, National Park Service, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, the mayors of Calabasas, Malibu, Westlake Village, and Agoura Hills, emergency response agencies, and local organizations.

“This report will sit on my desk,” said Supervisor Kuehl at the conclusion of the Nov. 17 meeting. “It is not going on a shelf anywhere. I’m going to issue a motion in the Board of Supervisors to turn this report into an action plan.”

 

The report can be accessed at lacounty.gov/recovery/report.

 

Annemarie Donkin
Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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