Letter: Woolsey Fire Lessons—Being Active, Not Passive

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Letter to the Editor

After reviewing the staff report and participating in the Public Safety Commission meeting on the City of Malibu emergency management role during the Woolsey Fire, I am left with questions and concerns if Malibu does not become more active in its roles in future disasters.

The city manager and public safety manager have taken the position that the city has little to say or do to reduce the magnitude of harms from a wildfire or other natural disaster; this is reportedly due to the fact that most of our property tax dollars, etc., go to LA County for past and present infrastructure and services. We are a contract city for fire and sheriff services, and according to national and state contracts and guidelines, we rely on professionals from those services to respond appropriately to our wildfire and other emergencies.

However, I would argue that our city does have the duty on the ground to monitor and report to those and other agencies through a county Operational Area Response and Recovery System, among other means. The city has a duty to have and use satellite telephone systems for communications with the fire and police command centers. It should have a certified and prepared public safety manager and related emergency certified staff who should be able to go—under police protection, if necessary—into mandatory evacuation areas; they should be able to report to the city manager and fire and sheriff command how well our contract services are doing in real time. Likewise, the city should have had timely feedback and staff to argue the community’s emergency needs at the command centers in Thousand Oaks and then Camarillo.

What could have been different if our city staff had reported in a timely manner that the Woolsey Fire was advancing Friday morning down towards Malibu Park without a water or fire retardant airplane or helicopter in sight? Or that outside area fire departments firefighters were reported as saying, “We are waiting for orders” Friday night, Saturday or even Sunday? Why wasn’t our staff pointing out that the 1993 recommendation was not being implemented of having local LA County firefighter team up with outside fire units to give them local knowledge?

Fateful blunders started just after the Woolsey Fire began at the Boeing (formerly Rocketdyne) facility as reported in the LA Times article by Jocelyn Cosgrove. Further fact-finding should include eye witness reports, pictures and videos to help define what went wrong and what may have been done correctly in Malibu and the surrounding communities, and there should be here say tips for others to consider investigating. Finally, a website or other means should help gather recommendations from the community and elsewhere so that it is much less likely that any of our friends, neighbors and visitors lose their homes, businesses, health or lives in a future natural or manmade disaster.

Jeff Harris, M.D., M.P.H