City officials say the emergency services plan kicked in quickly and went smoothly.
By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times
City officials praised the quick response of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the city’s emergency procedures during Monday’s fire that burned approximately 20 acres of land near Bluffs Park and several homes on Malibu Road.
The Malibu City Council was in a closed-door session prior to a regularly scheduled council meeting when members cancelled the public session due to the fire that started at Bluffs Park on Monday at approximately 5 p.m.
“At about 5:15, I was getting ready to go over for the start of the meeting,” Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Jennings said on Tuesday. “My son’s girlfriend was in a high-rise in downtown L.A. and she sent me a text message saying ‘I see smoke. Is Malibu on fire?'”
Jennings said from the windows in the Malibu city manager’s office they could see smoke in the direction of Bluffs Park but they were not immediately aware of the danger of the situation. In a matter of minutes, the council members were on the phones reassuring friends and family members. The city manager advised that the emergency operations center be opened at City Hall and the council meeting was postponed.
The fire, which started on the side of Pacific Coast Highway, according to one witness, quickly spread from Bluffs Park to homes along Malibu Road as fire crews and helicopters worked for three hours until the fire was declared contained at around 8 p.m. Monday night.
“Every one of these things is different,” Jennings said. “The fires that I’ve lived through since I’ve been out here usually start over in the hills or at the freeway, and you know they’re coming and it gives you a little bit of a chance to position yourself for it. In this case, by the time we went upstairs, had a brief discussion and got downstairs, the television screen was already showing there were houses that were engaged.”
Councilmember Sharon Barovsky and Mayor Ken Kearsley saw the fire as they made their way to the meeting at City Hall.
“I live on Malibu Road and Ken and I actually drove through the fire,” Barovsky said. (At one point, someone declared that her home was on fire. However, her home was untouched.)
Emergency Services Coordinator Brad Davis was at Bluffs Park just before the first fire engine arrived at the scene, and said he made sure that the staff had evacuated the Michael Landon Center.
“My next move was to update the city manager’s office with what I could actually see,” Davis said. “I advised the city that we had a real incident on our hands. My third move was to get a message on the hotline to expect traffic delays and to try to stay out of the area.”
Davis said the city’s response fell in to place from that point forward. He also praised the efforts of the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, made up of residents throughout Malibu who have completed a federally sponsored program of post-disaster skills training.
“It was bad, but it could have been a whole lot worse,” Kearsley said. “Most of [the Fire Department’s] assets were up on top of Pacific Coast Highway and Pepperdine, because that’s where they got the original call. Of course, this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but where they should have been was to have those assets on the old [Malibu] Road.”
Although eventually more than 300 firefighters responded to the scene, and Malibu Road ended up lined with trucks between the multimillion-dollar beachfront homes and the fire racing down the hill next to the park, at first there was one sole truck, Barovksy said.
“I left the house at 5:15 [p.m.] and there was one fire truck on Malibu Road and the flames were coming down the hill at that time on to the road,” she said.
Having been through major firestorms in the past, including the 1993 Topanga/Malibu fires that burned 268 homes and killed three people, city leaders have made sure Malibu’s emergency operations are up to date.
“We have scripted this and set up practices and set up the EOC and our CERT teams,” Kearsley said. “Everybody kicked in and within a half hour we were up and running and within an hour we had the emergency shelter set up at the high school. It worked very well.”
Kearsley noted that despite the quick nature of how fast the fire spread, the city’s response was organized. He also said there were things that could be improved on in the future.
“There are things we are going to go back over and learn, particularly communications,” Kearsley said. “For the most part, the staff did a fantastic job. We had spent hours in this training. Everybody had their job and they did it.”
“As far as the emergency preparedness side of things, this incident really does serve as a warning to everyone in Malibu,” Davis said.
“Things can happen when we are in red flag conditions and things can happen so quickly. People need to be as prepared as possible at home in terms of thinking about what their own emergency plan would be. These are all things that we teach in the CERT program.”
Davis said the plan now is to look at the overall response and celebrate the good things and point out to the staff what can be improved.
“I talked to a fire chief and I know that they were immediately on the scene,” Thorsen said. “Between the Fire Department and our well-trained and well-educated citizenry, everybody was prepared and everybody was in step and well-coordinated.”
Thorsen said the next phase from the city manager’s office was to go into a recovery stage that will entail an assessment from the building and safety standpoint and decide how best to handle the rebuild of the properties quickly and efficiently.