Letter: On Our Own

Letter to the Editor

As we pick up the pieces, mourning the loss of lives and the destruction of over 450 homes in our city with their lifetime of memories, frustration and anger at being held in lock-down is understandable but so unnecessary. Prevented from reaching our homes after seven days only adds to rumors of intentional abandonment by fire authorities. 

While it seems that Cal Fire, plus the city and county, were unprepared and initially failed to recognize the seriousness of the situation, we know effective policies like staging extra resources in advance of a strong Santa Ana wind were not followed. 

Many in Malibu now realize they are on their own in such times, realizing authorities, perhaps unwittingly, treat us as adversaries, even preventing neighbors from helping each other with food, water and other supplies by blocking access.

Malibu has four fire stations—eight fire engines spread over 21 miles. We rely on neighboring cities for more equipment during fires. Across the city, residents report fighting the fires with no fireman present, causing one to wonder if too many resources had been diverted to the Camp Fire in Paradise, which still blazes as this is being written. We know the decision at Pepperdine to have students shelter in place guaranteed most fire equipment and personnel were withdrawn from other areas of Malibu at a critical juncture. 

It takes no genius to map the progress of the fire. Like every other similar fire that has burned Malibu over the years, if you know the starting point and the wind direction, you know where the fire will end up. Different firemen have said that they never saw a fire like this, but in truth, this was a classic wind-driven blaze breaking out on the valley side of the mountains on the first day of Santa Anas. While our brave firemen cannot stop the progress of these fires in the canyons when the wind is so fierce, the fire never should have been allowed to cross PCH at Point Dume. 

But resources were not there.

If there was one bright spot in the firefighting effort, it was the aerial assault on Friday that kept the flames from spreading from the west side of Malibu Canyon, preventing the fire from reaching Eastern Malibu and Topanga.

The so-called mandatory evacuation, and closure of PCH and canyon roads has led to immense frustration by residents. This botched effort has trained Malibu to ignore future evac orders. To be clear, a “mandatory” evacuation is not mandatory. You can choose to stay. And as we hear of those who did remain and saved their homes and those of their neighbors with no firefighters present, this is a recipe for disaster. Next time, even more residents will choose not to evacuate, but few are prepared for a 100-foot wall of flames descending on their home when all you have is a garden hose. (More on preparation later.) There are times when you should leave, and you must know when. Driving blind through a wall of flames and smoke down a canyon road at the last minute may mean death. 

The unfortunate policies of decision-makers to prevent folks from returning to their homes will lead to such bad decisions. All the excuses by authorities: that the roads must be kept open for equipment (but there was no equipment), or downed power poles (which aren’t a danger when the power has been shut off), or the Santa Anas might pick up again, or the wind might turn offshore, or they’ve never seen a fire like this (very similar to 1993, 1956, 1970, 1978—to cite a few), or they must turn from protecting homes to saving lives (Pepperdine?). The reality is that once the wind stops, the firemen can knock down the hotsports and the danger has largely passed. 

Ordering all of Malibu and Topanga to be evacuated was a terrible decision, only adding to the gridlock on PCH. Eastern Malibu and Topanga should have been issued a warning to pack up and be ready to leave. Unless the wind shifted, it was never in danger. There was no smoke, which is an accurate indicator of the fire’s path. Staggering the evac would have resulted in less of a traffic jam on the highway. As it was, cars were lined up on PCH for hours and at the mouth of canyons trying to enter PCH. Up north in Paradise, people were trapped in their cars. In the ’93 fire, drivers abandoned their cars on Las Flores and ran. PCH was blocked to those entering from the canyons. 

The sheriff sets up roadblocks based on requests by Cal Fire. By not allowing residents access after the event foments needless anger and frustration, but the deputies are only doing their job. Most were amazingly friendly and their presence to prevent looters is much appreciated. But most of us have learned: Buy a generator, have lots of water and maybe organize your own neighborhood fire brigade.

While the fire authorities will review their decisions and allocation of equipment—hopefully with external experts so the report is not a whitewash—there is much we as a city we can do. 

1. Streamline the rebuilding process, even if someone chooses to exceed the 10 percent size increase.

2. Improve our evacuation procedures and discuss with the sheriff the use of dolphin stickers. 

3. Change the way those who evacuate are allowed to return. This is critical because if we do not do this, few will evacuate. Our city leaders need to fight for us to change the policies of preventing residents from returning to their homes. Even escorting people to see their burned out homes helps them. Otherwise, prepare to stay.

4. Revise the rules and recommendations for brush clearance. When I was helping extinguish spot fires on Saturday morning in Corral Canyon, it was obvious some homes survived because of good clearance while other burned. And instead of getting a postcard, each home should be inspected by firemen meeting with homeowners. 

5. Media reports now suggest the Woolsey Fire was caused by SCE equipment that failed. We know the Camp Fire resulted from above ground utility equipment. We need to stop this repetitive lunacy and lobby Sacramento to underground, starting with the Santa Monica Mountains. We should immediately make this a policy goal in Malibu. Additionally, we need the sheriff to clear the homeless encampments in the brush areas. Between above ground utility poles and fires caused by homeless camps, we can eliminate maybe 40 percent of these devastating hillside fires. The cost of failing to act is just too high. Alternatively, authorities can blame Santa Ana winds and global warming, change nothing, wait for next year’s disaster, and leave us on our own.

Scott Dittrich