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Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby offered assurances for the future and some clarification on fire command’s decision-making process during the Woolsey Fire, but provided few definite answers to questions from the audience at a highly charged community town hall.
Malibu City Hall was packed for the Saturday, Jan. 26 event, with a largely angry audience that heckled the speakers and actively booed Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman.
Mayor Jefferson Wagner worked to keep the peace.
“We need to prepare for when the east end [of Malibu] burns,” Wagner said. “I’m with you on this, but we’ve got to get answers and we need to do it constructively.”
“To be quite frank I came here for this reason, to hear this,” Osby said. “People who lost homes, have damaged homes, are upset. I want to hear this. There is not a major incident in my profession that has gone 100 percent well and it’s obvious that this didn’t.”
Osby explained that the main thing that didn’t go well was a lack of outside fire support. He stated that resources were spread thin because of the Camp and Hill fires, and that the county firefighters were largely on their own.
“We requested a significant amount of resources through mutual aid but, because of competing incidents, it was not available,” he stated. “We had to make do with what we had. We didn’t get significant aid until Day 3. [The fire] got to Malibu on Day 2.”
Osby described some of the challenges the fire crews faced, as 70 mile per hour winds propelled the fire into Malibu.
“As the fire was coming over the hill, we couldn’t get in front of it,” he said. “And we couldn’t follow it over the hill. Power lines were down, there were landslides, multiple accidents. We were doing all we could to get over hill, and sending people up PCH.”
Mike Sagely, a senior pilot for L.A. County Fire Air Operations, flies the department’s Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk helicopters. He stated that the Woolsey Fire was unlike anything anyone had seen before in this area.
“I have been flying a little over 32 years,” Sagely said. “These were some of the most challenging conditions I’ve seen or probably will ever see.”
Osby said he made the decision to implement the wide scale mandatory evacuation after receiving news of the high number of fatalities at the Camp Fire in Northern California.
“We don’t know how many fatalities we had, but we knew it was a significant amount,” Osby said, adding that he “owns” the fact that the decision to evacuate the entire area came “at the cost of losing houses.”
“When [the fire] jumped the 101, that was the signal to evacuate 250,000 people,” Osby said. He described the evacuation as “not perfect but effective,” drawing more boos from the audience.
“I know we can focus on the fact that in this incident we lost three lives [and] lost over 1,000 homes in LA County. I am deeply saddened by that, but there were over 57,000 homes that were saved,” he said, explaining that the order of priority was lives, property and only then environment.
That assertion did little to assuage the anger of an audience that included dozens of Malibu residents who lost their homes. Nearly 200 questions were submitted in writing at the start of the two-hour event. There was only time to respond to a small number of them, although Osby expressed willingness to return for additional town hall meetings and said he would arrange a way for concerned residents to submit their questions by email or on a website.
David Richardson, chief deputy of emergency operations for LA County Fire, rebutted a high-profile news story that indicated the response to the Woolsey Fire was insufficient. He described the county fire department’s response to the Woolsey Fire as “robust.” He confirmed, however, that the department was unable to obtain mutual aid.
“We knew we needed resources,” he said. “The response was ‘You are not going to get it.’ Why? Multiple fires. It was like a kick in gut.”
Richardson explained that LA County relies on a mutual aid system and blamed cuts to that program for the lack of firefighters at the Woolsey Fire. “In 2003, there were over 1,200 fire engines available,” he said. “Today there are under 700, because other cities have restructured. Other engines are not available.”
“You may not have seen firefighters in your area,” Osby acknowledged, after being shouted at by the audience about the lack of fire crews in locations like Point Dume. “That’s true. I can’t answer why all the resources didn’t come. We are going to look at [it in] an after-action review from the state.”
In response to numerous accounts from the audience of fire crews that appeared unwilling to come to the aid of residents in areas like Point Dume, where steep roads or death-trap conditions were not an issue, Osby initially reiterated that firefighters were “completely engaged,” but acknowledged he would take the allegations seriously.
“Children were fighting the fire,” one member of the audience shouted, recounting how fire engines drove past a burning home without stopping.
“I am not discounting what you said,” Osby acknowledged. “I accept what you are saying, and we are going to do a review. I can’t answer all the questions, because I don’t know. If we did have firefighters out there and they weren’t engaged, then I am disappointed.”
Looking ahead to the rebuilding process, Osby said his department is committed to doing “what is reasonable” with regard to older homes meeting current fire code.
“We will look at each property and do what is reasonably safe,” he said.
When members of the audience expressed concern that they need fire department input before deciding whether to rebuild, Osby said he was in discussions to provide additional staff to the City.
“Before you have architectural fees, we will talk to you,” he responded.
City Councilmember Skylar Peak suggested that Osby make someone available at Malibu City Hall who could help streamline the process and is qualified to make determinations about things like driveway width, turn-arounds and water pressure.
During a brief discussion of future wildfire prevention, Osby said he is open to the idea of more “call” firefighting crews, highly trained volunteer firefighters like the team in Corral Canyon that formed after the 2008 Corral Fire, and who saved numerous homes during the Woolsey Fire.
Osby also stated that the issue of falling water pressure, because the power to keep pumps operating goes down during a disaster, is being addressed in Sacramento. A new legislative measure which would mandate that all waterworks most provide backup generators has the support of the governor, he said.
Osby made one request before the town hall meeting ended.
“Your local firefighters did all they could do,” he said. “I hope you could acknowledge that. There are some things we did well. I also recognize there are challenges, lessons learned.”