Topangans Speak Out at Fire Listening Session

“I was burned out of my place years ago…it’s something we understand, but we will never understand
everything you all have been through,” Kuehl said at the end of the five-hour listening session. Photos by Annemarie Donkin

Among 109 people testifying before a Task Force of Los Angeles and Ventura County department heads, Topangans targeted the power outage on the first day of the Woolsey fire. For 30 hours, most of Topanga was “unplugged” from alerts or any notification that they were imperiled by a firestorm bearing down on Malibu, just a few ridgelines away.

After the devastating Woolsey Fire swept southwest through the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu in November, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a comprehensive review of the fire response and recovery.

On December 18, 2018, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl put forward a recommendation to convene a working group to review the response to and recovery from the Woolsey fire and provide progress reports in 90 days, and every 90 days thereafter, until such time as a final report is prepared and presented to the board.

The report will address the following: Cause and origin of the Woolsey fire; deployment of firefighting resources as the fire progressed; distribution and adequacy of firefighting resources, including the availability of mutual aid resources and evacuation notification and procedures, including the implementation of public alert procedures and the use of mass notification systems; strategic communications during the fire and its aftermath between first responders, law enforcement, municipal governments, and communities impacted by the fire and community repopulation notification and procedures, including any conflicts in information between and among fire and law enforcement agencies.

As part of the process to gather this information, a Woolsey Fire Listening Session was held at King Gillette Ranch on Sunday, March 3, to capture the experiences of residents affected by the fire.

During the session, more than 120 residents testified in front of the Task Force, whose purpose was “to more accurately reflect the experiences of those most affected and gather recommendations for improvements that could be put into place for every stage of such a wildfire.”

According to the County, “the Woolsey Fire, a fast-moving brush fire that was 14 miles wide, with a footprint of 150 square miles, and driven by gusts of up to 70 mph, was the most destructive fire L.A. County has ever seen. It moved from the 101 Freeway to the Pacific Ocean in just five hours. Seventy thousand homes, businesses, and other structures lay in the fire’s path and a quarter of a million people were evacuated.”

Kuehl opened the session by introducing the Task Force of Los Angeles and Ventura County department heads, first responders, law enforcement, and community leaders, emphasizing that this was a listening session, not a Q&A.

The public can also submit comments online at lacounty.gov/lacountyrecovers/

 

TOPANGA’S WOOLSEY FIRE STORY

While Topanga did not burn, many residents presented opinions regarding the lack of evacuation notification due to Southern California Edison’s (SCE) decision to turn off power on Nov. 8, a “red flag” day.

Many testified that this prevented Topangans from knowing about the voluntary evacuation order given at 6 a.m. on Nov. 9, and the mandatory order given around 3 p.m. that day, either by phone or online.

Other Topanga residents told of not receiving the “Alert L.A.” notifications on their phones due to the SCE power outage or having turned their wireless phones over to Frontier FIOS that only offers internet phone lines.

Many spoke of only receiving evacuation alerts and fire updates from AM news radio stations KNX or KFI in their cars.

“We did not hear anything at all,” said Linda Hill. “We had no communication to get back in from PCH, no check of ID; this was not okay. There needs to be more attention to access, more emergency communication. Was the plan to leave us in the dark because SCE shut us down again? They need to give us the ability at least to escape the jaws of death.”

Bryce Anderson, a member of TCEP, spoke of receiving the Alert L.A. only on his copper line phone and a mobile phone. He also spoke of the importance of a backup information system during power outages, specifically on cell phone towers.

Seth Hill urged Topanga to underground their utilities, to enthusiastic applause. “While the short-term cost may be too much money, we’ve already started digging in the Town Center,” he said. “Complete that little bit and move from there to underground all utilities, it may take 100 years but get started now.”

 

WHAT ABOUT FUTURE FIRE SAFETY?

Topangan Susan Nissman, who helped research, write, and compile the Topanga Disaster Survival Guide while she was a Field Deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, urged elected officials to lobby for and support Assembly Bill 38.

According to California Legislative Information, the bill would require, no later than July 1, 2020, the State Fire Marshall to develop, and the California Building Standards Commission to review, building standards for buildings in very high fire hazard severity zones. 

Stacy Sledge, President of the Topanga Town Council and a member of TCEP, outlined several areas of concern for Topanga, specifically the lack of power that resulted in loss of communications.

“The plan we developed over the past 30 years was useless, or as we called it, ‘Topanga Unplugged,’” she said.

“The plan we developed over the past 30 years was useless, or as we called it, ‘Topanga Unplugged,’” said Topanga Town Council President Stacy Sledge.

Sledge also said the Alert L.A. notifications were not received by Topanga’s 13,000 residents due to the loss of power by SCE and the cell phone towers have no backup power.

“Our concern is this may impact future evacuations,” she said. “We were shown a video by Chief Williams explaining fire behavior; it would have been nice to have that information sooner.”

Scott Ferguson, chairman of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP) thanked the County for listening and said that there were no evacuation alerts, so perhaps the community should go “old school” by going door to door or using bull horns to alert residents.

“We need fallback alert systems; the Alert L.A. system is confusing and not helpful,” he said. “We suffered from a lack of information for eight days. We also need a dedicated left turn lane [during emergencies] to allow traffic to flow onto PCH without having it back up into the Canyon.”

Ferguson also said that TCEP needed an emergency management task force of residents with local knowledge of the community. He decried the lack of “institutional knowledge” at the Emergency Operations Center and said the community needed a County Fire Department Liaison to allow TCEP to access the most up-to-date information.

 

BRUSH CLEARANCE AND REBUILDING

Mary Colvig Rhodes, of the former Topanga Messenger, was among the residents who asked about brush clearance in the creeks, citing the extreme fire threat it represents. “Does the County not have the money or the manpower to clean Red Rock Creek or Old Topanga Creek?” she asked.

Gary Fultheim, who lost his home in Corral Canyon, said the cost of rebuilding might be prohibitive in California and urged giving people more time to deal with the state and local governments to obtain loans and comply with new regulations. He also suggested using goats or sheep to clear high brush from hillsides and culverts.

Many residents from Agoura Hills, Malibu, Malibou Lake, and Seminole Springs told heartbreaking stories of losing their homes due to the lack of fire response in their area, often citing experiences of observing firemen allowing entire neighborhoods to burn due to the lack of orders from above to control the fires in those areas.  

Additionally, Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC) Chair Roger Pugliese stated, “There are certain individuals who exploit the fire to say we need to take down more trees or extend water lines into virgin territory that won’t help anyone except developers.”

 

L.A. COUNTY REPORTS

“If you have faith in us or not, we have to do our work,” Kuehl said at the end of the five-hour session. “I want us to do what we can on a unified basis; there will be a set of recommendations and a thorough report. I was burned out of my place years ago…it’s something we understand, but we will never understand everything you all have been through.”

 

To send your comments, recommendations and testimony to the County, please submit comments online at: https://www.lacounty.gov/lacountyrecovers/

 

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