Forced out of their neighborhoods for more than a week because of a wind-driven wildfire that raced across the canyons, devouring hundreds of buildings in its path, residents are finally being allowed to return to Malibu.
Evacuation orders continued to lift over the weekend, but the homecoming will be bittersweet, as hundreds will find their residences reduced to rubble.
One of the largest and most destructive in LA history, the Woolsey Fire has torched 96,949 acres and destroyed an astonishing 1,500 homes and buildings across two counties, from the Valley to beaches, including 443 in Malibu city limits.
Two people, who officials believe were trying to flee flames in Malibu, have died. An additional fire-related death is under investigation. In the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, 88 percent of all National Park Service land has burned.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who surveyed the area by air, called the devastation “heartbreaking.” In his three-decade career, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said he’s only witnessed devastation on this scale in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The size of the fire—more than 150 square miles, according to Osby—is astounding.
Firefighters, who endured erratic wind and steep terrain, expect to get to full containment by Thursday.
Driven by powerful Santa Ana winds, the Woolsey Fire blew south from Ventura County over the 101 freeway into Los Angeles shortly before dawn on November 9, unleashing a barrage of flames on Malibu.
“The fire was burning like a torch or flame thrower across the freeway,” KTLA’s Eric Spillman reported. “There were people on the freeway doing U-turns and driving back the way they came from, in darkness with smoke all the way around them. It was just remarkable.”
“The fire was traveling so fast. The [California Highway Patrol] couldn’t keep up with it. We couldn’t keep up with it,” he said.
Los Angeles County Chief Deputy David Richardson said the fire’s front was 14 miles wide as it crested the hills at Liberty Canyon Road, wide enough that it blew over the Malibu Canyon Road and Decker Road corridors simultaneously.
At 10 a.m. November 9, the city of Malibu issued a citywide mandatory evacuation order, then released a statement two hours later, saying the “fire is now burning out of control and heading into populated areas of Malibu.” Residents were told to evacuate immediately.
As it ripped south toward the ocean, it created apocalyptic scenes.
Residents used the iconic Pacific Coast Highway to flee toward Santa Monica. Parking lots at Zuma Beach were turned into evacuation zones for llamas and other large animals; striking photos show horses on the sand, smoke billowing over the ocean behind them.
Officials with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area reported around noon that Western Town at Paramount Ranch, where Westworld was filmed, had burned (though the church is still standing).
Shortly after 1 a.m. on November 10, the Los Angeles County Coroner reported that it was investigating the deaths of two people on Mulholland Highway in Malibu, an area that burned.
The bodies were found “severely burned inside of a stopped vehicle.” Los Angeles County sheriff’s Commander Scott Gage says detectives believe the driver may have become disoriented while evacuating and was “overcome by fire.”
Malibu Wines, a popular wine tasting spot that hosts “safari tours” of its ranch and vineyard, reported that it “lost a considerable portion” of its barns and facilities, but its employees and most of its animals, including the giraffe Stanley, were safe.
North of the 101 freeway, flames swept into the Valley community of West Hills late on into the night on November 9, and evacuation centers were set up in Woodland Hills, Pacific Palisades, and Topanga.
In Ventura, one evacuation center, the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, had also served as a family reunification site earlier in the week in the wake of a mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, where 13 people were killed.
“This last 48 hours, 72 hours in Ventura County have been a difficult time,” said Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy. “People lost their lives in the shooting and now people have lost their homes.”
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service warned early on that the fire could spread rapidly because of gusty winds, low humidity, and “critically dry fuels,” including brush and vegetation.
With low visibility from the smoke and wind gusts of 40 and 50 mph, at multiple points throughout the day on November 9, the Los Angeles County Fire Department had to down water-dropping aircraft.
“Our firefighters have been facing some extreme, tough fire conditions that they’ve said they’ve never seen in their lives,” said Osby.
By November 10, firefighters started to get a grip on the blaze, but flames had also damaged roads and knocked down power lines and cell towers. The firefighting effort drew heavily on local water supplies, leaving some communities with little to no water pressure.
Crews have worked for days to restore utilities, and authorities have repeatedly urged frustrated residents to exercise patience and stay away from burn areas, warning them that even when there were no active flames, neighborhoods were still unsafe.
“It’s heartbreaking to know we have to hold you back,” said John Benedict, chief of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s north patrol division.
But “this is the biggest fire event” in Los Angeles history, he said, “probably even worse” than Old Topanga Fire of 1993, which ravaged Malibu, burning 17,000 acres and destroying 388 structures.
“This fire dwarfs all of that,” said Deputy Chief Richardson. “I’ve been in this business for over 32 years, I have never... ever seen fire spread that [way.]”
— Associate editor Bianca Barragan, urbanism editor Alissa Walker, and reporter Elijah Chiland contributed to this report.