Former Mayor Reflects on ‘Fog of War’ of Woolsey Fire

The Kearsleys

A two-time former Malibu mayor has serious questions about the “lack of leadership” during the management of the Woolsey Fire disaster. Having stayed at home for 11 fires since moving to Malibu in 1963, Ken Kearsley calls himself a fire “veteran.” 

The 83-year-old stayed behind as usual with his wife, Barbara, and 10 other families in their Sycamore Park neighborhood when the Woolsey Fire forced most of Malibu to evacuate. By Friday night, it was burning in the back of their subdivision.  

“There were neighbors who were young and agile and basically stopped it there. Because of their bravery—to face those fires at 2:30 in the morning. We were an island of green. We were blessed,” Kearsley recalled.

Their fire battle with hoses was successful for the most part, with only one of 50 homes lost. Overnight Saturday morning, a handful of men and women were able to battle Woolsey with their own hoses and no fire department aid. By sunlight Saturday, Kearsley and 79-year-old Barbara were using sump pumps to put out spot fires. 

“The fire came down twice early Saturday morning in Sycamore Meadows and Via Escondido,” Barbara explained. “Other areas had no water, but we had water. I felt guilty trying to get a fire truck to come because I knew other areas were worse.” When a crew finally arrived, it was navigating with an outdated Thomas Guide atlas that the former mayor said, “I’m sure they got at the Smithsonian.”

But Kearsley said the real story happened after the fire.  

“We couldn’t leave. If we did, we couldn’t come back. That was much to the consternation of everyone who stayed,” he said. So, the neighborhood banded together and, with scraps of spaghetti, a microwave and generator they cobbled together some meals, but without perishables they soon ran out of food. 

The Kearsleys were able to drive to Point Dume, where they found cell coverage and, importantly, a makeshift soup kitchen put on by what Kearsley called “generous people” who shared whatever scraps of food they had left.

By the eighth day of isolation, however, most of the food was leftover Halloween candy. In Kearsley’s own cupboard he was down to his last spoonful of peanut butter. So, the octogenarian borrowed a child’s wagon and said he was ready to hike five miles to Ralphs and back for provisions. That was when the road was finally opened and he was free from living “like cave men and cave women.”

Getting food and medicine to people was concerning for Kearsley. 

“This gal had broken her arm,” he described. “She had to be smuggled in and out of the roadblocks to get to Urgent Care. We were treated like criminals. We weren’t supposed to be there because we didn’t evacuate. That’s the anger people are feeling. Plus, the anger of the hundreds of people who were burned out.” The 2002 and 2006 mayor asked, “Who made these decisions? 

“That’s what people are questioning,” he continued. “I had a great feeling that nobody was in charge. It was chaos. That’s understandable, but some of the decisions that were made were reprehensible.” He cited what he called “smugglers” boating in supplies at Point Dume. “They were being hassled by the sheriff about bringing food in.  Whoever decided that was a no-no should be exiled to New York.”

But, Kearsley said, it is more important to learn from these mistakes than to place blame.

“I don’t think anyone was in charge. We can’t be finger pointing. We live in Malibu. We understand living in Malibu comes with certain privileges and also comes with certain things that are going to happen that aren’t very nice. So, the next time we have to learn from our mistakes this time,” he reasoned. “We can’t get retribution.  We can’t get revenge. We’ve got to change the culture of the bureaucracy that are there to help us. We’re not going to be perfect because it’s like a war. [Otto von] Bismarck said, ‘The fog of war sets in, but your plans are going to be changed.’ What we have to do is get the leadership in the county and state to be flexible and to be able to change and not tell people they can’t bring food in. How about a truck bringing food in if you’re going to keep people from leaving to get food? How about using resources like we did?”