Townhall Meeting Seeks To Calm and Inform Wildfire Evacuees

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Amid a deadly wind-driven Southern California wildfire, State Senator Henry Stern and Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel held an urgent Townhall meeting at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills on Sunday, Nov. 11.

During the standing room only event, Stern and Gabriel sought to relieve the fear and panic of concerned residents from Malibu, Topanga, Calabasas, Westlake Village, West Hills and Agoura Hills, and to impart information to those who had lost their homes or had been evacuated.

High winds drove the Woolsey and Hill fires southwest to the ocean, a fire that took only five hours to move from the 101 freeway to Malibu, where two were confirmed dead on Nov. 10.

According to a Cal Fire spokesman, as of Monday, Nov. 12, the blaze had burned 93,662 acres and was 20 percent contained.

About 57,000 structures were threatened and the total number of structures destroyed jumped to 370 (as of November 13) and, according to KPCC’s LAist, the fire burned 83 percent of national park land in the Santa Monica Mountains. Full containment was expected by Nov. 17, Cal Fire reported.

The White House approved on Monday Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for a presidential disaster declaration.

“This has been one of the toughest weeks of my life and I’m sure for many of you too,” Sen. Stern said. “But the toughest is for those who lost loved ones in the Borderline shooting in Thousand Oaks [on November 7]. To those who lost their lives in this fire and those in Paradise, which was basically wiped off the map in the last few days, let’s take a moment and settle ourselves down here and take a moment of silence.”

Thom Porter, Chief of Strategic Planning, Cal Fire, said that hundreds of crews have been pulled into the Woolsey and Hill fires from Washington, Montana, Idaho and Utah.

Cal Fire also reported that more than 3,200 firefighters were assigned to the blaze and 22 helicopters worked from above and a number of air tankers were in use to suppress flames as conditions allowed.

“This is by far the quickest and fastest moving fire I have been a part of in 32 years,” said L.A. County Fire Department, Chief Deputy Emergency Operations, David Richardson. “Just looking at the community, we are humbled and share in your loss and quite frankly, each and every firefighter grieves at every structure that was not saved and every life that was lost. For the past three days fire fighters have worked 72 hours without a break on the fire line.”


Chief Richardson, working with unified command of Ventura County Fire and Los Angeles City Fire, the most vulnerable among the communities was Topanga.

“We are putting in a tremendous effort as we expect this wind to continue,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to keep the fire on the west side of Malibu Canyon Road and keep it out of the community of Topanga.”

Chief John Benedict of the L. A. County Sheriff’s Department reported about Unified Command progress: “There remains a need to have all residents evacuating at this time [from] Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Topanga, Westlake Village, and the city of Malibu,” Benedict said. “200,000 people possibly displaced, that is a lot of homes, a lot of people, it’s a huge event. When we ask you to evacuate, please do so and bring ID and medications; it’s a tragic event for the community.”

Looking utterly exhausted, City of Malibu councilmember Skylar Peak thanked the L. A. County Fire Department for their efforts to evacuate the city within hours of the fire starting.

“It feels like Armageddon there,” Peak said. “I would not expect to get home any time soon, there is no power and no gas. From Malibu Canyon west to the ocean, it feels like Mars.”

As agency briefings continued, Malibu residents became agitated with aspects of the evacuation and the response to the fire, including the shelter-in-place policy at Pepperdine University.

“Why are they not opening the canyons so we can find out if our houses are still standing?” asked one irate woman. “Why is there not a helicopter in Point Dume in particular? Some of our neighbors have lost everything and we want to know if our houses are still standing.”

“I understand that,” Stern said. “I don’t know if my own house is standing (it is) and if my grandparents’ house is still standing. I’m with you.”

Chief Richardson said they have a have a long understanding with Malibu about the option of shelter-in-place.

“For the approximately 3,500 students at Pepperdine University, you look at the fire dynamics, wind speed, you look at what the fire is doing, our particular focus during this event is life safety because that fire was moving fast,”

“I have friends who have lost everything.” Stern said. “We can’t tell you tonight if your home is still standing, and I am truly sorry about that. This is an active safety risk, this is not going to feel good at the end of the day, this is a tragedy.”

Newly elected U.S. Rep. Katie Hill represents the area around Santa Susana Field Laboratory and tried to reassure the panicky crowd.

“I want to acknowledge the fire fighters and law enforcement agencies here; 250,000 people, a quarter of a million people evacuated, is a huge deal,” she said. “What you’re managing is something that is not perfect, it’s hard and I am sorry for those who have lost things; we, Congressman Brownley, Congressman Ted Lieu, and Congressman Brad Sherman are here for you and will be doing everything we can in Washington to make sure that the resources are here regardless of Donald Trump’s Tweets.”

During the Q&A, Malibu and Topanga residents pressed the first responders and law enforcement agencies with their urgent questions.

“Why has Edison had the power out for three days in Topanga?’ asked Cathleen Hernandez, who expressed concern about her community being under full evacuation and completely out of any means of communication. When we got the call to evacuate, I was gone, but the only way my daughter got information was to drive down the hill and get her cell phone on, and [listen to] KNX 1070. Thank God, they started announcing the evacuations and where the zones were.”


Hernandez suggested that the agencies get old-fashioned about it and create a plan to get critical information to Topanga.”

“Yes, thank god for KNX,” Stern replied. They are actually our lifeline, so thank you, but we are going to have to take a serious look at how we deliver power in the State of California,” he said. “Right now our power grid is entirely too vulnerable in these fire-prone areas. The Legislature acted at the end of session to authorize a new overhaul in this terrible new normal that we live in.”

Having waited patiently for others to express their concerns, Sen. Stern took a question from Currie Dickerson, a very patient Pepperdine University student who addressed criticism about the shelter-in-place policy.  

“I just wanted to share a perspective from a student,” said Dickerson. “Hours before I evacuated, I was on campus and there were hundreds of students still mourning the death of one of our fellow students [at the Borderline] and we all gathered for a prayer service. It was a very sensitive time when it comes to making decisions in the face of such a traumatic experience, and I understand everyone here has experienced such loss and pain right now. From the perspective of a student who has walked through the past few days of such heartache, students were not clearly thinking on Thursday and Friday or into the weekend in light of such a tragedy. I just wanted to say that what has happened at Pepperdine, [we were] confused and hurt. I hope you can give some grace to that.”

The audience gave the tearful Dickerson an appreciative round of applause as they began streaming out the doors and the media turned off their cameras.

“Thank you for being here and we will give you that grace,” Stern said.


Los Angeles County residents and business owners, including people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs may call 211 LA County for emergency preparedness information and other referral services. The toll-free 2-1-1 number is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 211 LA County services can also be accessed online.

Red Cross Disaster Relief: Information about receiving disaster relief assistance (dispatch) – (800) 675-5799

Information about the fire response and current conditions can be found on social media if you follow @NotifyLA for emergency alerts. Text alerts to your cell phone are available if. You text READY to 888-777.


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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