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Some Malibu residents vow not to evacuate in next fire

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“We’re more than capable and motivated to hold our own,” resident says

Resident Lea Johnson views the scene November 10, after the Woolsey Fire tore through Point Dume.
AFP/Getty Images

Enraged by what they say was the city’s failure to protect their homes against the Woolsey Fire, some residents told Malibu officials on Tuesday that they will not heed evacuation orders in the future.

“You’re not going to get people to evacuate next time, because the only people who saved their homes were the ones who didn’t evacuate,” said Point Dume resident Melanie Goudzwaard.

She was one of dozens of residents who addressed the City Council on Tuesday night, its first meeting since the Woolsey Fire ripped through the area and destroyed 443 homes in the city’s limits, including Goudzwaard’s.

“There wasn’t a firefighter anywhere to be seen on Point Dume. We were left absolutely defenseless… we were left to burn,” she said. “When my husband and I realized we were never going to see our home again... we drove away, in absolute disbelief.”

Residents unloaded their frustration on council members and city staffers for two hours. Complaints ranged from the way evacuation orders were communicated to the lack of support given to residents who chose to weather the firestorm in order to defend their properties.

Residents told stories about encountering firefighters in idling trucks as homes burned in the canyons above them.

Carolyn Carradine said she and her husband didn’t spot a single firetruck while evacuating, then watched their home of 22 years burn while watching local news.

“Every single one of you should be ashamed,” she told the council. “You fought for weeks about [banning] plastic straws… and you let our town burn. My entire life has been destroyed because of your ineptitude.”

The perception that there weren’t any fire engines in Malibu is “incorrect,” said Los Angeles County Fire assistant chief Anthony Williams. It would be impossible, he said, to have fire engines protect every one of the 57,000 homes in the Woolsey Fire’s path.

“We don’t have 57,000 fire engines in the western United States,” he said. “Yes, there were areas that did not have fire engines. No, there were not fire engines not doing anything in Los Angeles County.”

The blaze was massive—with an active front that measured an astonishing 14-miles wide—and it moved aggressively fast. At multiple points on November 9, when the fire was at its peak, fire officials said they had to ground water-dropping aircraft because of Santa Ana winds and low-visibility.

Firefighters not only endured difficult conditions, they didn’t have the numbers residents wanted to see.

By the time the Woolsey Fire erupted, strike teams from Southern California were en route to Paradise, where the Camp Fire would claim 85 lives. CalFire engines that would have helped Southern California were working in Northern California in the absence of crews from the national Forest Service, whose firefighting season ends November 1, said Los Angeles County fire assistant chief Anthony Williams.

“The priority is based upon the largest potential loss of life, and the Camp Fire suffered an astronomical loss of life,” he said. “It’s an ungodly number.”

Firefighters look for hotspots in areas destroyed by the Woolsey Fire, in Point Dume on November 10.
AFP/Getty Images

Malibu residents also chastised officials for “hard road blocks” that, in the aftermath of the fire, prevented them from bringing in supplies to residents who did not heed evacuation orders.

The entire city of Malibu was under mandatory evacuation orders for four days, as firefighters built containment lines and doused flare-ups and utility crews worked to repair fallen power lines. Authorities repeatedly warned residents that ignoring evacuation orders was dangerous and would hamper their ability to protect homes if they had to refocus on rescue operations instead.

“There are numerous examples of people not evacuating other fires, and they have died,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said as the fire was still burning. “Your home can be rebuilt. We can’t… bring your life back

It’s unknown how many residents did not obey evacuation orders. Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, the city’s incoming mayor, did not leave—he tried to save his family’s home and was hospitalized for several days.

A group of nearly two dozen friends and surfers who call themselves “The Point Dume Bomberos” brought food, gasoline, and water in by boat and dampened hotspots with buckets of water and extinguishers.

“With only a basic understanding of firefighting, we grabbed shovels, garden hoses, two-way radios, and started patrolling the streets and gullies we knew better than everyone,” said Keegan Gibbs.

More than ever, he told the council, residents are going to be inclined to stay back.

“This fire has proven we’re more than capable and motivated to hold our own,” Gibbs said.

Honore Kotler, a registered nurse, said she stayed put during the fire and remained in Malibu for 10 days afterward. She said trained CERT volunteers were turned away at barricades, but some residents were able to sneak by, bringing in water, gas, generators, and medicine.

“It was egregious… the way that our residents were left to fend for themselves,” she said. “We have to support the people who are going to stay. You have to know people are going to stay now if they didn’t before.”