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Report: What went wrong during the Woolsey Fire response

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The new report finds the county was unprepared for such an “unimaginable” disaster

Fast-Spreading Hill and Woolsey Fires Force Evacuations In California’s Ventura County Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A new report assessing how authorities responded to the most destructive wildfires in Los Angeles history finds the county was not prepared for a disaster at such a colossal scale—and cautions that a more destructive event would overwhelm emergency response teams.

“The size and speed of the Woolsey Fire, at times, outpaced the early efforts of some of the largest and most experienced and capable agencies in the United States,” the report finds.

In just 6.5 hours on November 9, 2018, flames raced from the 101 freeway to the ocean, blowing across three different corridors with dry fuel beds, some of which had not burned in four decades. When the fire crossed the 12-lane highway, it traveled approximately three miles in 15 minutes.

“What occurred in less than 24 hours was not anticipated by any prior plan or preparedness exercise,” reads the report, which was commissioned by county officials.

An unnamed public safety official cited in the report describes the Woolsey Fire as “unimaginable... with a ferocity and speed over great distances that, at times in the early hours, overwhelmed the institutions.”

In Los Angeles County, the wind-driven blaze ultimately destroyed 1,075 homes and 46 commercial structures and damaged 189 more. It forced the evacuations of more than 250,000 people. It scorched 96,949 acres, or 151.5 square miles, across the two counties, an area that’s approximately one-third the area of the city of Los Angeles.

As unimaginable as the fire was, the report says it was “still a single focused incident” that predominately affected Malibu and a section of the San Fernando Valley.

“Imagine the challenges after a great earthquake” or similar event that could devastate the entire county, it says.

This map shows the fire’s march toward the ocean. The white shaded area represents the fire origin. The pale red area is November 8-9. The dark red is November 9, after the fire jumped the freeway, charring the core of the mountains and devastating Malibu in a little over six hours.

It makes 155 key findings and makes dozens recommendations, primarily focused on more smoothly evacuating residents and keeping the public up-to-date as disaster unfolds. The findings include:

  • There was an over-reliance on Twitter, when not everyone is on Twitter or even has the internet.
  • There was a lack of an identified, single, informed voice addressing community concerns.
  • The county fire department lacks a strategic plan for release of critical public information.
  • There’s no effective communications plan for when technology fails.
  • The Alert LA County tool, including its application for wireless emergency alerts and the radio/TV Emergency Broadcast System, was vastly underutilized.
  • Law enforcement officials in the field did not have accurate information for evacuating residents and for counseling those seeking re-entry.

“The recommendations in this draft report call for more frequent and clearer communications to residents and between agencies, as well as for better collaboration across counties, county departments, cities and special districts,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a statement.

She called the report “one of the most comprehensive reviews ever conducted in California.”

It also emphasizes that the public needs to be better prepared to follow orders to evacuate.

Residents who stayed behind during the Woolsey Fire “generated an enormous volume of 911 calls for help or wellness checks, with many of these turning out not to be life threatening.”

On November 9, Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatchers received 1,800 additional calls for help (more than twice the daily call volume of about 1,100), and in Malibu firefighters were so busy responding to an “avalanche” of calls, they could not keep up with structure defense.

That’s part of the reason why it appeared there weren’t enough fire crews on hand to defend homes, a criticism levied heavily upon firefighters by Malibu residents.

On the morning of November 9, there were only seven to 26 engines on the Malibu coast, far below the 100 to 200 needed.

With the Hill Fire burning nearby, resources were stretched thin and surrounding agencies might have resisted sending help to maintain their own staffing levels amid Santa Ana wind conditions. Downed power lines and trees also made roads impassable for crews, and in one case, a Malibu-stationed fire engine had a mechanical breakdown in view from the public street, according to the report.

LA County Fire “frequently” requested—to no avail—resources from surrounding agencies. Local incident commanders even made personal calls to other chiefs in Southern California to ask for help, which the report says is unprecedented.

“During the first two days of the Woolsey Fire, 53 percent of the fire engine mutual aid requests were unfilled,” it finds. “That totals a staggering 874 units, and the fire burned 96 percent of its final footprint in that time.”

The draft After Action Report will be presented at a special meeting of the Woolsey Fire Task Force at 10 a.m. Saturday at Agoura Hills Performing Arts and Education Center at Agoura Hills High School.