Debriefing the Woolsey Fire and Next Steps

A long-awaited Woolsey Fire debrief, called by the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force (TEMTF) on January 30, brought together the first responders who were on the front lines fighting everyone’s worst nightmare: a fast-moving, wind-driven fire.

Miraculously, Topanga was spared, but it now remains the last green zone, a target if ever there was one, for the next fire.

To start with, David Ford, Senior Government Affairs Manager for SCE, explained that the power outage on November 9, the day the fire started near Woolsey Canyon, was not a Public Safety Power Shutoff  (PSPS) that caused the power outage in the canyon for 30 hours.

“This was not a PSPS event,” said Ford. “A tree had come down on a line, cutting a main circuit coming out of a substation to Malibu and areas around Topanga. It was a wind-related outage and the areas around that circuit were de-energized.”

Nevertheless, the outage started at a time when notification of the fire was essential. Some people in Topanga never even knew there was a fire and for those who did, rumors were flying.

“As we got the information out, people were okay,” said Scott Ferguson of Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP).

Anthony Williams, Assistant Fire Chief at Los Angeles County Fire Department, said “One of the biggest successes was when the fire started, notifications went out in half an hour, at 5:30 a.m., to five areas that started preparing to evacuate seniors and large animals. Once the fire jumped the 101, however, all of our fire sources were aimed toward Malibu.”

Much of the two-hour meeting was around notification, the need for redundant systems, communication with the public, and educating the community about fire behavior.

Installing sirens has been a popular suggestion by some residents, but according to Maria Grycan, who served the Topanga area for 15 years. “Sirens won’t do it.”

Sirens need to be tested on a regular basis, it would cost millions of dollars, there are property concerns, and still no guarantee of coverage.

“We live in a vertical canyon,” Susan Nissman, who facilitated the meeting, said, indicating there would have to be more than one siren to sound the alarm.

Alli Acker, however, said she is proponent of sirens. “It’s all about redundancy (a backup system),” she said.

One of the most salient points was made by James Grasso who embedded with the CHP, as a “local expert.”

All of CHP’s resources were deployed at the 101. “There were officers from everywhere who didn’t have any idea where they were,” said one officer. “Out of towners don’t know who they’re talking to.”

“Law enforcement’s challenge is to have local experts embedded,” said Grasso. “What we talk about here doesn’t go on to become institutional knowledge in the command post. I was brought in as a local expert. We were advising them on their mission and when that didn’t happen, there was a breakdown. We need to be embedded,” he said.

The Lost Hills Sheriff’s department couldn’t have agreed more. “You are an important piece in this. Our emergency command needs to know who the local experts are to advise us.”

Fire Chief at Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Drew Smith agreed. “We need a community liaison,” and advised people to become proactive.

Becoming a local expert could be a new training offshoot for TCEP to ponder. How could someone qualify as a local expert?

EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS FAIR AND DRILL

An Emergency Preparedness Fair is planned at the Community Center for May 5. It was in planning stages when the fire hit and now, everyone is trying to catch up from the subsequent delays.

The fair and fire drills have always been a vital educational component for the Office of Emergency Management and the Fire Department to disseminate information about preparedness and fire behavior. Topanga Elementary students receive orientation from the fire department during Preparedness Week, where the protocol is to shelter in place. They practice a fire drill and, and see a helicopter do a flyover and water drop.

This year, in addition to developing awareness of fire behavior, a Woolsey Fire debriefing workshop, and lessons learned, a “Topanga Unplugged” component may be added.

What do we do when all communication is shut off as it was on November 9? What did people do before cell phones. What backups do we need and how can we afford them?

Chief Williams also suggested that Topanga have a fire drill in the summer, before the Santa Ana winds arrive to invite what used to be the normal fire season.

“We have a new abnormal,” Nissman noted. “We need to adapt and identify problem areas, such as notification, communications, community response and engagement, then find solutions.”

The fair will be one step towards coming together to find solutions. The drill will be another where we get to practice our plans.

“We need to educate a whole new community, now, more than ever, said Nissman, “because Topanga is the last green zone. Everything around us has burned. In 1993, we had gridlock with people trying to get out of the canyon because a horse trailer overturned. People couldn’t get out; firefighters couldn’t get in. You are putting your neighbors’ and first responders’ lives in danger if you don’t evacuate.

Grycan said one of her proudest moments during the fire was catching a brief conversation on social media when the order came to evacuate your zone and, someone asked, “‘What zone am I in?’ A reply came back: ‘If you don’t know your zone, you need to move.’”

Flavia Potenza
Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at editor@messengermountainnews.com

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