Residents Describe Loss, Share Solutions, in Fire’s Wake

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Representatives from agencies within Los Angeles County hear complaints and suggestions from local residents following the events of the Woolsey Fire, its immediate aftermath and the long rebuild process that is just now beginning.

After accusations of being nearly radio silent during the Woolsey Fire evacuation, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl held the second of her listening sessions with one goal: to hear people’s complaints and concerns. With a task force panel of 30 flanking her on the dais at King Gillette Ranch Sunday, Kuehl and representatives of city, state and county agencies, including Malibu Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, heard suggestions for next time, and grievances—many raw and emotional.

One of the first of nearly 100 scheduled speakers, Kathy from Topanga spoke of the frustration of losing her job the week of the fire and then being “displaced” when she wasn’t allowed back home, “even though the fire wasn’t a threat to our community.” Kathy, who didn’t want her last name used, said she came in person to tell her “real story that can’t come across in an email.”

Many in the nearly packed hall lost their homes. Most knew friends and neighbors who did, but were still shaken by what they called a lack of response from the fire department. Malibou Lake resident Debby Pattiz pointed out how the lake could have been used as a water source, but wasn’t. She told of frustration, “living in unincorporated LA County without a mayor or city council. 

“We don’t have many elected representatives,” Pattiz explained. “We feel abandoned. My concern looking forward is how the lack of fire support for our community during this unstoppable, crazy inferno is going to endanger lives when the next one comes.” 

Even though Pattiz claimed her community trims trees and works closely with CalFire, she charged that a decision was made not to defend Seminole Springs and Malibou Lake. “That decision was made somewhere,” she said. “We need to understand the process that went into that decision. The next fire, you’re going to have many more people refusing to evacuate. Half the homes on my street burned. A quarter of the homes in my neighborhood burned to the ground. We live five feet from a lake.” Pattiz said she’s seen helicopters scoop up water from that lake in past fires, but during Woolsey, none came. “What is the plan next time if you’re not going to come and defend us?” she asked. Pattiz also asked not to expand occupancy in the region until “you are able to provide us with assurance that residents will be protected.”

Complaints were heard concerning “chaotic” repopulation efforts, lack of communications due to an Edison power shutoff that Topangan Linda Hill asserted could be “the jaws of death” and brush clearance in ESHAs (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas) that many claimed created wind tunnels that helped fuel the inferno. “All this vegetation that’s environmentally protected—it causes us not to clear—guess what? It’s all gone now,” according to Rob Shattuck, who lost his home on Mulholland Highway. Shattuck, who works in construction, can’t even access his home since the highway’s destruction post-fire claimed a bridge and five homes on the “snake” section of the road.

Along with complaints about lack of services, suggestions were heard, including using tiered evacuations and a popular sentiment in the crowd to underground electrical wires, although Shattuck disagreed. 

“It’s not practical to bury poles,” he said. “They’re subject to a host of other problems.” He cited water infiltration and high heat he claimed could cause collapse. “We need better maintenance and steel poles,” Shattuck offered. He also stressed self-reliance in an emergency, saying, “Government cannot be everywhere. It cannot be at your assistance as fast as we would like it.” He also urged for less regulation and codes for rebuilds. 

One speaker said he found out the hard way that his trash bins don’t hold water. He told the panel, “If a 70-gallon bin held water, each household could have 200 gallons of reserve water. An engine carries 500 gallons of water. Three households can carry more than one engine.” The speaker earned applause when he suggested the phone companies reinstall copper lines. “Most people here would have had communications during the fire,” he reasoned. The Topanga resident also asked to consider controlled burns as a firestorm abatement—despite perceived danger. “If one got out of hand and we lost one house, maybe that’s the cost of saving 200 houses down the road,” he said.

Resident Roger Pugliese questioned the extension of water lines under the guise of helping fight fires: “This fire was fought from the air. Extending water lines into virgin territory is not going to help any of us except for developers.”

More testimony, including pictures, can be submitted through Sheila Kuehl’s website, supervisorkuehl.com.