Reaction to the Los Angeles Times Woolsey Fire Investigation
Hope your first full week of 2019 is off to a great start! Yesterday the Los Angeles Times published an incredibly well-researched and thoughtful front-page Sunday Edition piece on the Woolsey Fire entitled “Firefighter’s fateful choices: How the Woolsey Fire became an unstoppable monster” which features a nearly minute-by minute breakdown of the critical beginning hours of the Woolsey Fire in November.
I’m humbled that my image of Sara Daoud and her boyfriend Jordan Pope watching the firestorm engulf Sara’s neighborhood was featured on the front page of the paper to lead the piece. (The house survived with damage to water wells and the yard, where 22/30 of homes were destroyed in upper Trancas Canyon).
Being on the ground for virtually the entire destructive and active portion of the fire, reading the LA Times report was like reliving every minute on the fire line, from the blaze coming out of the hills above Oak Park to it’s ultimate terminus at the Pacific Ocean. Two days before the Woolsey Fire started I wrote an ominous prediction*:
“My concern is that any overnight ignition that escapes fast containment in Western LA County or eastern Ventura County will lead to dangerous rates of spread and evacuations when people are sleeping, a scary combo as we saw in the Tubbs Fire and Thomas Fire. This wind event will bring low single digit RH with explosive fuels, many at or close to record lows.
*Excerpt from an Instagram post I made on November 7th, 48 hours before the Woolsey Fire started:
Until I wrote this essay I hadn’t looked at what I wrote on November 7th in detail, and it sent such a chill down my spine that I had to get up and walk away from writing for a few minutes. History repeats itself. In my book Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night I outline this cyclical nature of wildfires happening in the same footprint. For example, the same fire has happened at least half a dozen times in the last 100 years in Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, and tens of thousands of luxury homes are directly in the burn path.
The Los Angeles Time accurately points out issues with communications and resource availability at the beginning of the Woolsey Fire. This fits my ongoing experience that when fire resources are drawn down, there simply aren’t enough firefighters, engines, and aircraft to go around. California is one of the most progressive and well-equipped places in the world for fighting wildland fire, Southern California especially, so when we have a shortage of resources here, you know it’s a fire siege.
By the time the Woolsey Fire started, hundreds of firefighters were already battling the Hill Fire nearby, and many aircraft available in the state were committed at the Camp Fire near Chico in Northern California at the town of Paradise, which had started the day before. The tragedy in Paradise precluded the ability for them to spare aircraft. I remember listening to radio traffic on my scanner while sitting in traffic on the 405 Thursday afternoon driving to the Hill Fire November 8th. I was in the Sepulveda Pass as the Woolsey Fire continued to grow in size, but at a slower pace.
When I was at the Hill Fire at around 6pm, the Woolsey Fire seemed rather minor based on radio traffic. With my own wildfire experience as an observer and training with fire agencies and ride-alongs, I too felt that the Hill Fire was the greatest threat to lives and property up until about 9pm that first night. My own assessment fits in with the narrative provided by Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Darryl Osby, who maintains that LA County Fire scaled and maintained a properly sized response to the fires, where “half the department” was committed to the blaze. LA City Fire also had a robust and adequate response.
Ventura County Fire (VCFD) was heavily committed to the Hill Fire, and in my opinion, probably fatigued from having responded to the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting just 16 hours before in Thousand Oaks, tragically losing a sheriff in the line of duty amidst the shock and trauma of a mass shooting and gun violence. Combined with the resource commitment at the Hill Fire it’s no surprise that Ventura County Fire did not fulfill it’s standard full first alarm brush response as laid out in their memorandum of understanding for mutual aid at the start of the Woolsey Fire.
I am not faulting the department in any way, as this is a completely understandable set of circumstances for why a fully manned brush response may not have happened. Extraordinary situations meant that normalcy was out the window. It does, however, provide a robust learning opportunity for future training and inter-agency cooperation on large wildfire incidents where it’s the “big one” or a “worst case scenario” which the Woolsey Fire fatefully materialized into.
Additionally, a few extra patrol engines and bulldozer from a full brush response wouldn’t have made a scintilla of difference with the Woolsey Fire. By the time the first VCFD units arrived on scene, the fire was already well established at 5 aces with a rapid rate of spread in heavy brush and steep terrain. By then it was already too late and the Woolsey Fire was largely in mother nature’s hands, - all humankind could do was get out of the way. Fuels were at near record critical levels, meaning they were extremely dry for the time of year and highly susceptible to carrying fire and having spot fires start from embers being spread by winds. Years of previous drought did not help.
Given the fire weather conditions, existing mass casualty incident, and statewide resource drawdown, firefighters made heroic stands and saved dozens of lives, and hundreds of homes with the resources they dad. It could’ve been MUCH worse, with respect to those who lost their homes.
My experience on the ground mirrors official statements from both Los Angeles County Fire (LACOFD) and other agencies. No amount of aircraft, firefighters, and apparatus could’ve stopped the Woolsey Fire once it was established up in the Boeing property above Bell Canyon. I was up near the Boeing entrance around 10pm when the Santa Ana winds started to pickup again, and a 50mph+ gust nearly knocked off my fire helmet. I saw the fire glow to life, and it started to make it’s run south. In the next hour I drove around to the north side of the fire by Oak Park and watched the fire barrel into subdivisions as mourners were just beginning process the shock from the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting just a few short miles away in a candlelight vigil that was ending. The Woolsey Fire situation deteriorated rapidly while the Hill Fire calmed down.
The craziest part of the first night was how fast the fire moved, and how few resources were in front of the fire as it sped up for the first few minutes of the fire impacting Oak Park. That changed within an hour, and I can tell you from watching the blaze and listening to radio traffic that even the most experienced battalion chiefs were moving engines around like haywire to pre-position firefighters in the best way possible. It got to a point where structure defense became second priority and life safety became the focus. It still seems surreal re-thinking about it all.
So what is the solution going forward? The answer is not simple or easy. First, if we want larger wildfire responses, we need to hire more firefighters, train them, pay them, and invest in more fire engines and aircraft (raise local, county, and state taxes). There needs to be more robust public education on wildfire safety (some communities do this well) with individual responsibility placed on homeowner’s to clear their brush (patchy implementation and enforcement), and an emphasis on electing political leadership that will take real climate action to reduce carbon emissions that will help curb the ever-increasing amount of days that support large wildfire behavior. We also need to take a hard look about where we build homes, and accept that some places are forged by fire, and that fire will burn through the same places again and again, whether or not real estate developers deny the risk. We need to expand high fire hazard severity zones, and make sure that the houses most at risk bear their fair share of the tax burden for wildland related emergency response, cleanup, and emergency grants.
Going back to that fateful Instagram post I made a few days before the Woolsey Fire:
“I always keep my fingers crossed that we dodge a bullet, and so far we have this fall in Southern CA. But I’m also a realist, and the data and statistics don’t lie. I plan for the extreme scenario and hope for the best. And when the extreme happens the best I can do is continue to tell the story so viewers can see for themselves, and use that knowledge to better inform their decisions on conservation, the environment, and supporting those in power who will act in the best interests of our climate future.”
Basically, it’s the same lesson we’ve seen at 10 other large wildfires in the last few years. And we keep doing things the same way. Until we address these fundamentals, to be blunt, more people will die and more houses will burn in extreme wildfires. As someone who has seen this happen at literally dozens of fires and hundreds of burned homes later, it’s the hard truth stakeholders in the wildland urban interface need to hear if we are to live in balance with the forces of nature that shape our environment.