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Emotions ran high during a special Malibu City Council meeting Tuesday, Dec. 4, when City leaders, fire and police officials tried to explain what went wrong, and what went right, during the evacuation and emergency response to the Woolsey Fire which ignited on Nov. 8.
The fire destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people in both Ventura and Los Angeles counties before it was contained on Nov. 21.
“There’s tragedy out there, but there are very uplifting stories, too,” said Mayor Rick Mullen, adding that lives were saved in Malibu.
The City Hall was packed with hundreds of residents, many of them speaking during an almost three-hour public comment period about their frustration with how things were handled by the officials during the fire.
“I’m very, very disappointed with how this turned out,” said Karenn Colby, the first Malibu resident speaking. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
At the end of the five-hour meeting, the City Council took several actions, including unanimously adopting a resolution proclaiming a local emergency in the City. Every 14 days, the City needs to renew that proclamation, which assists residents and the City in obtaining local, state and federal aid and other assistance.
The council also unanimously approved initiating possible changes to the Malibu Local Coastal Program and the Municipal Code to facilitate the rebuilding or homes damaged or destroyed by the fire, and to provide relief for victims of the fire. A public hearing on the matter will be held at an upcoming emergency Planning Commission meeting.
Also unanimously approved were urgency ordinances prohibiting price gouging in the city, and prohibiting the use of leaf blowers in the city west of Malibu Canyon Road that could spread dangerous ash and debris.
“It’s a gigantic, fast-moving fire, the largest fire in the history of Los Angeles County — probably the largest disaster in the history of LA County, and it happened very quickly,” said Mullen, a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain. “Every town on its way to get here also suffered losses.”
He said the size and speed of the fire “was unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” and that previous fires in Malibu were “tiny by comparison.”
Anthony Williams, assistant fire chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said there were three major fires going on in California at the same time as the Woolsey Fire, including the Hill Fire in Ventura County and the Camp Fire in Northern California. He said strike teams requested to fight fires in Southern California were already on route to the town of Paradise. “The priority is based upon the largest potential loss of life and, as we all know, the Camp Fire suffered an astronomical loss of life,” Williams said.
Williams said the fire department was left to deal with the Woolsey Fire with the resources on hand.
“We have 57,000 houses in the path of [the Woolsey Fire],” Williams said. “The expectation that a fire engine would be at each and every residence or every street is unrealistic.”
The Woolsey Fire, which started in Simi Valley, also traveled very quickly to Malibu after it jumped Highway 101, said California Highway Patrol Lt. Kevin Kurker, who was the incident commander during the fire.
Evacuations couldn’t go north on Pacific Coast Highway because of the Hill Fire, and there was only a “small funnel for thousands of residents” to go south on PCH.
Kurker admitted that the evacuation wasn’t as quick as officials wanted, but said it happened so fast. He said there were lessons to be learned, and CHP officials are discussing how to make any future evacuations go better.
Residents speaking at the meeting said they signed up for emergency alerts from the City, but didn’t get any, and evacuation orders weren’t clear or didn’t happen at all until it was too late.
Sparky Greene said he saw fire personnel and trucks on his street and begged for help, but said none came before his home was destroyed. He requested that the council and higher officials investigate the lack of fire response.
Carolyn Carradine said she lost “generations of treasures” in her home, which was not protected by fire trucks or air support.
“We watched our house burn on TV, with a newsperson saying they decided to ‘let this one go.’” Carradine said. “Our 22 years of living here, our entire life went up in flames, while they decided ‘we’re going to let this one go.’”
Carradine said City officials and the council should be ashamed.
“You fought for weeks about plastic straws and let our town burn,” Carradine said. “How dare you? You sit there all smug and I’m sorry if you’re tired and we’re taking too much of your time.”
Point Dume resident Melanie Goudzwaard also said her home was lost because of a lack of response by firefighters, leaving residents “absolutely defenseless and abandoned.”
Robert Bailey said a fire engine previously purchased by residents of Corral Canyon to help their neighborhood was confiscated by the LAFD while residents were left to fend for themselves. Afterward, there was a “military-style occupation of our community” by the LA County Sheriff’s Department, who treated the community like criminals, he said.
Other residents said the City should reconsider its contracts with the LAFD, and said more modern fire-fighting equipment was needed. Others said it was egregious that City officials left residents who could not leave or who stayed to save their homes to fend for themselves. They said water, gas, generators, medication and other necessities had to be brought in on boats, kayaks and other means past City-imposed barricades.
Dr. Sabine Hazan said she was prevented from bringing supplies to residents who stayed behind and needed help.
Some questioned why most residents weren’t allowed back to their homes more quickly after the fire.
Several residents said they most likely wouldn’t follow evacuation orders again, since they had a better chance saving their homes if they stayed. “It’s painful to hear these stories,” said Councilmember Laura Rosenthal. “A lot of things went wrong [and] a lot of things went right.”
Rosenthal further stated that the fire and sheriff’s departments, as well as the City, will look at what happened and how they can do better.
Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson Wagner, who lost his home in the fire and was hospitalized while trying to save it, said it’s not going to be all “high-fives and kumbaya around City Hall” for quite some time, and he promised to address residents’ concerns and situations.
“Just remember it’s a trying time,” Wagner said. “We failed, but we will survive.”
City Manager Reva Feldman said she was “heartbroken” for the community.
Feldman echoed Mullen’s comments about taking responsibility for things that happened in the City and could’ve been done differently.
“My staff and I are committed to doing anything we can to rebuild Malibu the best way we can,” Feldman said.
According to a Nov. 29 staff report, there were over 1,500 Malibu residents without power, and 443 properties with destroyed structures that still needed be assessed for hazardous materials. Rain was forecasted for the City on and off through Dec. 12.
Feldman said a priority is to get power, water and other utilities restored to remaining residents, and for residents’ homes and properties to be assessed quickly by authorities so they can be rebuilt.
She urged residents to take extra precautions during rain events because “we are in unchartered territory in our hillsides, in the area around Malibu, and our roads.”
She said those with limited communications should consider relocating when there is rain because of potential debris flows.
The meeting was adjourned in honor of those who lost their lives in the Woolsey and Camp Fires as well as victims of the Borderline shooting in Thousand Oaks.