The Woolsey Fire killed three people: Alfred deCiutiis, who was thought to have died in his home in Agoura Hills, and Malibuites Anthony Noubar Baklayan and Shoushan Baklayan, who were thought to have been fleeing the fire when their vehicle was overtaken. The fire also injured three firefighting personnel, destroyed 1,643 structures and burned 96,949 acres. Beginning with a downed Southern California Edison power line at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory just outside Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley on the evening of Nov. 8, 2018, it grew in size and speed, leaping over the Ventura (101) Freeway before dawn on Nov. 9, aided by Santa Ana wind gusts and dry conditions. The eight-lane freeway, considered a major fire break, was firefighters’ last hope of stopping the blaze before it made route to the sea, which it reached an estimated six hours later, taking 479 Malibu homes with it.
The fire did not choose just one canyon down which to burn. From Deer Creek to Malibu Canyon and everything in between—Mulholland, Decker, Encinal, Zuma, Kanan, Latigo—the fire tore through the Santa Monica Mountains with a 14-mile-wide front.
Speaking to TMT just days after Woolsey’s initial firestorm, then-mayor Rick Mullen, an LA County Fire captain out of Station 72 in Decker Canyon, said the fire behaved like others he had seen over the years, but on a scale like nothing anyone predicted. The fire danger in Malibu’s canyons was something Mullen often considered, driving from his home in Ramirez Canyon into Decker Canyon.
“I used to look at it while I was driving to work, thinking, ‘Some day this is going to go off,’ but I used to think of it in terms of—one canyon, for example, going off, but they all went off,” he said in the November 2018 interview. “Everything north of Malibu Canyon. So, the amount of energy that was released was nuclear in scale, really, if you think about it.”
Added to that issue, post-mortem reports detailed, was the fact that only seven fire engines were stationed on the ocean side of the 101 Freeway that day, waiting to receive the fire were it to jump. Conversely, 285 engines were in Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village on the northerly side of the freeway. By the time the fire jumped, there was virtually no one to head it off.
Early Friday morning, Nov. 9, all of Malibu received an evacuation order in one broad stroke, causing a monumental traffic jam along Pacific Coast Highway, hindered further by traffic signal outages and incoming traffic still flowing from Santa Monica. Hours into the evacuation, California Highway Patrol was able to halt northbound traffic at the McClure Tunnel near the Santa Monica Pier to open more lanes of Pacific Coast Highway to evacuate into Los Angeles.
The fire’s spread was halted from entering the Malibu Civic Center and threatening City Hall, the major commercial area of town, the historic Malibu Pier and the most densely populated area of the city by a nonstop bombardment of Pepperdine University’s campus by firefighting air support—a campus where thousands of students were sheltering in place due to a longstanding but still controversial policy of not evacuating the university.
While thousands evacuated, hundreds stayed behind and heroically saved their and their neighbors’ homes with pool pumps, generators and sometimes just a garden hose and a bucket. Call them “bombers,” “old timers” or “old Malibu,” those who stayed behind went on to organize food and supply pickup points and could be seen in town in the hours and days after the fire, when cell service, electricity and often even water was a scarce commodity, looking out for neighbors and forming new relationships while Malibu was cordoned off from the outside world by an army of law enforcement officers.