LA County Fire Chief Drew Smith and Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Williams may have some answers and, certainly some lessons learned in their presentation, “The Woolsey Fire in Review,” at this weekend’s Emergency Fair.
Six months after the Woolsey fire was contained, the community still talking about it. Not with the intensity during the immediate aftermath, but in conversations punctuated with question marks and maybes. Is it fact, rumor, no comment?
Assistant Chief Anthony Williams, L.A. County Fire Department, Battalion 5, Division 7, recently spoke with the Messenger Mountain News with the caveat that he could discuss the Woolsey Fire only in generalities until the County completes its after-action assessment.
Both he and Chief Drew Smith (see Saving Topanga, April 19, 2019, for Suzanne Guldimann’s interview with Smith) will make two 45-minute presentations, “The Woolsey Fire in Review,”—at 10:15 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.—on Sunday, May 5, for “Get Plugged In,” the Emergency Fair at the Topanga Community Center. They will also be available for questions and discussion during the day.
What Williams could tell us was that his people were “ready to go” at 3 p.m. on Thursday, November 8, as soon as it became clear the fire couldn’t be contained, and sent out alerts for voluntary evacuations at 3:15 p.m. He stated that the fire jumped the 101 at Chesebro/Palo Comado Canyon around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, when he put out a mass alert for elderly, disabled, and people with large animals to prepare to evacuate. He dismissed an alleged eye-witness account of the fire jumping the 101 earlier at Liberty Canyon. Mandatory evacuation in Topanga was called for around 3 p.m., Friday.
According to the L.A. Times, “in the first few hours of the Woolsey fire, LAFD responded in the greatest numbers,” while Ventura County, who focused almost all of its firefighters on battling the Hill fire just 15 miles away, could send only a skeleton crew.
The Times also reported that the LAFD initially sent 20 engines and 88 firefighters to a county fire station in Agoura Hills, where they awaited the fire to cross into L.A. County and that “firefighters on the front lines complained of lack of water, communication, and direction from the fire incident leaders.”
Informed that people were comparing Topanga to the Camp Fire in Butte County that broke out up north on the same day and destroyed the town of Paradise, Williams said, “No, Topanga is not like Paradise,” because there are more ways to evacuate. He did state that a fire, especially in Fernwood, would be challenging.
“Topanga is ripe for fire,” he said and repeated what has become the firefighters’ mantra: ‘Evacuate when asked.’ There is nothing worse than being in the way.”
One of many responsibilities in Chief Williams’ job description is disseminating information to the public. County and fire department personnel, through the LA County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), organize annual community emergency fairs and fire drills in ongoing efforts to keep a wider population informed of the importance of being prepared and what is available to them to do so.
The Emergency Fair on Sunday, May 5, is a great opportunity to get some answers from the people who were on the front lines to questions about effects of the Woolsey fire.
In preparation for Safety Week at Topanga Elementary Charter School, Williams made a brief appearance to inform a standing-room-only classroom of parents and teachers about the Shelter in Place policy for the school during an emergency and what will happen on Safety Day, Friday, May 3, when the fire department shows up with fire engines, an aerial water drop, and more “edutainment” for the kids.
Principal Steve Gediman explained that the school has supplies for 300 people for three days, plus radios and a landline, which were used, albeit limited, during the fire and power shutdown. Communication, as for everyone, was a problem; parents had no way of knowing when or how to pick up their children. Gediman said he will work on that with them.
Williams said, “I get that parents want to make their families whole in times of emergency but with 10,000 residents, it takes six to eight hours to evacuate the canyon.
“Please, keep the roads clear. Having fire personnel at the school is one of our first obligations. They will determine how many more resources may be needed. Know that firefighters won’t coddle your kids. There will be firmness and direction from them because it’s not a fire drill.”
With spring brush clearing in full swing now, Williams recommended that people also contact the North Topanga Canyon fire Safe Council (NTCFSC) and sign up for a free evaluation of their home. “Brush clearing isn’t just once a year, it’s constant,” he said.
Just what homeowners want to hear, right?
This Sunday is an opportunity to meet the first responders and local volunteer organizations where residents can volunteer or contribute so Topanga continues to be an informed and safe community.
Don’t miss the fire chiefs’ presentation at 10:15 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; the OEM panel discussion at 12:30 p.m.; and Simon T, who developed his property with firefighting capabilities that is now the LAFD Helistop, 69 Bravo, at 11 a.m. Other local volunteer organizations, TCEP, NTCFSC, CERT, and the Disaster Radio Team (DRT) will be on hand along with many vendors. Fair hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.