The Woolsey Fire One Year Later

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On November 8, 2018, a fire ignited near Southern California Edison equipment at the old Santa Susana Field Laboratory at the northern end of the San Fernando Valley. By noon on the following day, the fire had raged to the sea in west Malibu, consuming nearly half of the Santa Monica Mountains on its way. 

The fire took just six and a half hours to burn to the sea once it jumped the 101 in the early hours of November 9. Residents scrambled to evacuate. The emergency response, hampered by the size and speed of the fire, was also impacted by a lack of mutual aid and air response. Many resources were already deployed at the catastrophic Paradise Fire in Northern California and the smaller but also fast-moving Hill Fire in Camarillo. Calls for mutual aid were largely unsuccessful, even when it became evident that the Woolsey Fire was rapidly becoming the largest, fastest wildfire disaster in Los Angeles County history. 

Mandatory evacuation orders went out, jamming Pacific Coast Highway, as Malibu and canyon residents headed east, joined by evacuating Topanga residents. All of the off ramps on the 10 freeway in Santa Monica were closed in an effort to funnel the evacuees away from the coast. The closures fouled traffic all over the Westside for hours.

Because power and communications swiftly failed, many residents in the fire’s path had little notice. One of the three fire fatalities died in his home in Triunfo Canyon, apparently unaware of the fire. The other two, a son and his mother, appear to have taken a wrong turn while evacuating on Mulholland Highway near Decker Canyon, ending up in the middle of the fire down a narrow drive.

Residents who stayed behind were on their own. Those who evacuated struggled for days to get information from the burn zone, ultimately relying on social media and texts from anyone “inside” with a strong enough cell signal to send a message.

Stories emerged from those who stayed to fight. In the Malibu West subdivision, volunteer firefighters saved as many homes as they could but houses burned. In Corral Canyon, Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner saved his neighbor’s home but was unable to save his own. He was hospitalized with severe smoke inhalation. At the Seminole Springs mobile home park off Mulholland Highway and at Malibou Lake residents had only minutes to evacuate before the fire swept through before dawn. Malibu Park residents had a little more time to prepare, but a fire tornado swept down on the neighborhood and those who had stayed to fight had to retreat. At Zuma, displaced residents and horses, llamas, goats and other animals gathered in surreal groups, watching as the wall of fire spread. On Point Dume, the “Point Dume Bombers,” a group of residents who formed a fire fighting team, and other homeowners-turned-firefighters battled to stop the ember-driven blaze, which burned down to the ocean at Westward Beach. Keegan Gibson, one of the Bombers, lost his family home, but helped save many more. 

John Mazza and a small group of eastern Point Dume neighbors used garden hoses to stop the fire before it spread through two more streets of homes.

“The hoses kept melting,” recalled Mazza. “We had to keep finding more hoses. The wind died. If it hadn’t we wouldn’t have been able to stop it.”

“We put embers out for three days,” added Robby Mazza, John Mazza’s wife. She described the stubbornly persistent hotspots as “smolders.”  Some of the biggest problems came from palm trees and the railroad ties used in landscaping. 

On Dume Drive, Marco Longo worked to keep the fire out of the gully behind his family’s home and the homes of his neighbors. “It was close,” his mother, Aelina Longo, told the Messenger Mountain News. “He saw a house blow up. He couldn’t save that one, but he stopped the spread.” 

The Woolsey Fire continued to flair and reignite, spread by embers as the Santa Ana winds continued to blow. The firefight became a marathon.

Stories began to surface about the inability of those who stayed behind to get supplies. 

A dramatic resupply effort involving boats landing emergency goods at Paradise Cove garnered international attention, but for those who stayed, there was no power, no communications, and dust, ash, and devastation everywhere. 

Those who left would not be able to return for more than a week, and in some cases more than a month.

 

THE AFTERMATH

Even after the fire was fully contained the disaster was far from over. The fire burned 96,949 acres—151.5 square miles, including nearly 90 percent of National Park Service (NPS) land in the Santa Monica Mountains. The cost is currently estimated at $6 billion. 

The Woolsey Fire destroyed 1,643 structures and damaged 364 more. Approximately 36 percent of the losses were in the city of Malibu. Small mountain communities throughout unincorporated Los Angeles and Ventura County were also deeply impacted, with some neighborhoods nearly obliterated.

The NPS lost numerous historical landmarks, including the Peter Strauss Ranch, the Sepulveda Adobe and almost the entire Western film set at Paramount Ranch. Both the NPS and State Parks lost ranger residences and critical infrastructure, including lifeguard towers, restrooms, signage, guardrails, bridges, stairs, and hundreds of miles of trails.

It took weeks and, in some cases, months to restore electrical service and communications to the burn zone. Power poles, roads, bridges, guardrails, lights, traffic signs, and drainage culverts were damaged or destroyed on miles of Pacific Coast Highway and on the mountain roads. Two sections of Mulholland Highway remain closed almost a year later. 

 

REGENERATION

The first rains in what would be one of the wettest winters in recent history arrived just weeks after the fire was out. Government agencies and residents now raced to sandbag and stabilize fire-scorched hillsides and clear debris-clogged drainages. There were rockslides and mudflows. 

The season of disaster was followed by a super bloom—rare, fire-following flowers appeared in  what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime abundance. The flowers attracted and sustained an extraordinary migration of painted lady butterflies—devastation and regeneration creating an indelible impression on those who witnessed the phenomena.

Malibu and the parts of the Santa Monica Mountains that burned in the fire may never be the same, but after nearly a year, many things have become more normal. Debris has been cleared from all of the houses that were destroyed. Although residents who lost their homes continue to struggle with the lengthy, complex, and often frustrating process of rebuilding, the process has at least begun.

Almost the entire Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) is open again. Cultural resources that were destroyed, like the historic Sepulveda Adobe, Peter Strauss Ranch, and a number of archeological sites damaged in the fire, are irreplaceable, but the Santa Monica Mountains Fund has vowed to rebuild the Paramount Ranch Western Town set, and a fundraising campaign is underway. Paramount Ranch was also recently the site of one of the largest volunteer activism efforts in SMMNRA history, as hundreds came together to plant new oaks and reseed native plants.

There is still a lot of anger and unanswered questions in burned-out communities. Many in the burn zone remain shell-shocked, still troubled by nightmares and anxiety. Some residents may never return—their losses too great to be overcome. Others remain optimistic, despite the challenges. Almost everyone who weathered the disaster has a story to tell of heartbreak or unexpected acts of kindness, of loss, but also courage and determination. 

The Woolsey Fire may be the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history, but it won’t be the last. For those who endured it, the fact that it is now history—a history that is beginning to recede into memory—is one of the only good things about it.

 

Barn’s burned down. 

Now I can see the moon. 

—Mizuta Masahide

17th century Japanese poet and samurai

 

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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