Five years on, Malibu showcases unwavering resilience and unity
By Barbara Burke
Written in collaboration with Hayley Mattson
Nov. 8, 2018, was a day that most of us will not forget as the Woolsey Fire raged through our community, marking its place as one of the most destructive wildfires in history. Starting abruptly, propelled by the fierce Santa Ana winds, it quickly traversed the 12-lane 101 freeway and reached the Pacific Ocean within 22 hours. This calamity occurred amidst other tragedies, including a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks and the simultaneous blazes of the Camp Fire and the Hill Fire, testing the state’s emergency responses. The Woolsey Fire’s rapid advance overwhelmed fire departments, with half of the resource requests being unmet.
The inferno consumed 1,075 homes in Los Angeles County but spared 57,000 more, a testament to the firefighters’ relentless efforts. An After Action Review revealed areas of improvement, emphasizing the need for enhanced public communication, better technological situational awareness, and reconsidered fire mitigation strategies.
Five years on, the memories of the fire remain vivid for our community. The devastation of cherished homes, iconic movie sets, and historic ranches was heart-wrenching. Notably, Point Dume suffered immensely, while Pepperdine University’s mitigation efforts shielded them. More than just structures, a legacy of memories turned to ash. However, amid the grief, Malibu’s spirit shined, with the community rallying together, offering support and hope. This disaster not only reshaped the landscape but also strengthened communal bonds.
On this five-year anniversary, while Malibu’s landscape has transformed, the community’s love and resilience remain unwavering. Remembering the past’s challenges, we also honor the undying spirit of unity, showcasing that Malibu’s heart will endure any adversity.
As Malibu residents prepare to mark the Woolsey Fire’s five-year anniversary, The Malibu Times spoke with key public agency decision-makers and local residents about their recollections of the fire and lessons learned about better preparing for future emergencies.
Facing the Beast
“The Woolsey Fire, with its huge size (14-mile fire front, 100,000 acres, the largest in Los Angeles County history), destroyed 1,600 total homes and structures, with 488 homes destroyed in Malibu city limits. It caused a complete communication blackout with citywide power, cell phone, and internet outages due to infrastructure destruction,” a City of Malibu report states.
Three people died in the fire, and more than 295,000 people evacuated.
No matter how one measures it, Woolsey was a beast, and we are still remedying the damages left in its trail five years later.
“Nov. 8 was my third day on the job with Lost Hills Sheriff’s station as the interim captain. I got a call from Ventura officials informing me about the Woolsey Fire’s status,” Captain Jennifer Seeto said. “My gut said, ‘Oh gosh! The fuel beds in our area are very dry,’ and I got that eerie feeling that this fire could be ‘the one.’”
That portending was, unfortunately, correct.
“I got a call from the City Manager at 2 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 9, and I just knew what she was calling for,” Susan Duenas, Public Safety Manager for the City of Malibu, said. “We had been monitoring Woolsey, but we were also focusing on the Hill Fire in the days before.”
Both Seeto and Duenas painfully recall that when the fire erupted, Malibuites were still grappling with the Borderline shooting that had occurred only days prior on Nov. 7, tragically taking the life of a Pepperdine student, a sheriff’s sergeant, and ten other young adults.
“I knew if the Woolsey Fire crossed the 101, Malibu was in serious trouble,” Duenas said. “As soon as I got the call from the City Manager, I jumped out of bed, grabbed my emergency go-bag, and immediately started calling all of our department heads to get people into City Hall.”
As she drove to Malibu from her home over the hill, Duenas began to appreciate just how enormous Woolsey was.
“I kept seeing the horrendous fire, and it was extremely windy,” she recalls. “I knew the monster fire was not going to stop.”
Duenas contacted residents located closest to the 101 first and those in western Malibu.
“I knew which way the wind was blowing, so I prioritized those citizens and those in Point Dume first,” she explained. “However, not all whom I sent messages to received them since the power and cell service was already out for many.”
City personnel set up a command post to help support the Public Works staff working throughout the city to help victims.
“In such a fire, the City’s tasks focus first on evacuating citizens, communicating with them, and ultimately, assisting in repopulating affected areas,” Duenas said.
Another first order of business was to provide information about the damage sustained by public buildings and streets.
“We first identify initial damage estimates of city-owned roads and parks because that data is needed to assist the county and state officials as they reach out to the President to declare an emergency, which then empowers officials to provide disaster assistance and teams to verify damage,” she explains.
Over the hill, as the conflagration devoured much of Malibu, Seeto was going between Fire Station No. 89 and the Lost Hills station in Agoura Hills, focusing on tasking deputies and volunteers with helping to evacuate victims.
Both Seeto and Duenas agree that it is a fundamental principle of fire response to avoid setting up a command post in the fire zone in order to dispatch staff to respond to a disaster in an orderly fashion.
Seeto recalls one touching story amidst all the madness and horror. “A reserve volunteer who lived in Malibu Lake left to try to deal with the fire at his own home,” she shares. “He came back very quickly and asked to be tasked out to help Malibu residents.”
She asked him why he returned so quickly. “He responded by telling me that his house burned down, and he hoped he could help someone avoid the pain he was feeling,” Seeto said. “I was awed by his dedication and by all the deputies from all over the area who came to help. Many were tasked to Seminole Springs, which we later learned was annihilated by the fire.”
Seeto recalls that officers found a woman trapped inside her home in Seminole Springs, and they were able to evacuate her. Meanwhile, officers fought fires with lawn hoses throughout the canyon. However, the help they really needed was not forthcoming, Seeto recalls.
“I was sending deputies out to fight a fire and be in harm’s way with only a gun,” she says. “We kept asking and asking for proper resources to fight the fire, but they were not coming.”
“Facing that reality,” Seeto says, “was so, so hard.”
Back in Malibu, while Duenas kept informing citizens of the fire’s status, she did not have the authority to order an evacuation.
“We have to wait for the fire department to order an evacuation,” she explains. “Captain James Royal of Lost Hills station and I went to assess the situation in a local park midday on Nov. 9, and we got hit with so many embers and flying debris that we literally couldn’t see.”
Later that day in Malibu, Captain Royal informed City staff they had to evacuate.
“We couldn’t believe they were evacuating us. All of our backup locations were in the fire zone,” Duenas recalls. “At first, they wanted us to run our command center in Thousand Oaks. I told them that would not work, so they sent us to Santa Monica, where we were welcomed with open arms and opened doors.”
Thousands did evacuate from Malibu, and many evacuees waited in long lines on the Pacific Coast Highway, panicking about the fire possibly consuming them.
However, not everyone evacuated.
“We live on Rambla Pacifico, and I kept checking the fire’s status,” Brian Goldberg remembers. “After the fire came through, our family went up Winding Way to help a friend fight the fire, and then we headed to Malibu West, where we spent more time-fighting fires.”
Although those experiences were harrowing, Goldberg sees one upside.
“That learning lesson taught my kids how to behave in an emergency,” he states. “Ultimately, Woolsey pulled our whole community together, which is good for the moral fabric in Malibu; its unifying effect helped Malibu rebuild.”
“Santa Monica provided the City of Malibu with an emergency operations center for two weeks, including knowledgeable staff trained in emergency responses,” Duenas states, noting that she and her staff are enormously grateful to the City of Santa Monica.
That said, she notes, “I know that people don’t like that we were repositioned in Santa Monica and that some think we had no presence in Malibu. We were there helping, but next time, we need shirts to identify City staff so people know we’re helping, and we will have mobile billboards to post messages.”
How to handle such issues in a future fire or natural disaster is one of many issues Duenas and her team continue to work diligently on improving.
The public sector’s response to Woolsey included local and county government agencies thoroughly evaluating what went wrong and how to handle such emergencies better.
The old adage “forewarned is forearmed” has been top of mind for public officials.
The City of Malibu’s report, aptly titled “What Has The City of Malibu Done to be More Prepared for Wildfires After the 2018 Woolsey Fire?” was last updated on Aug. 30 of this year.
“Five years after the devastating Woolsey Fire, images from the tragic, deadly fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina, Maui, have brought up memories, trauma, and fears about the dangers that Malibu faces this wildfire season,” the report begins. “Community members want to know if they will be safe and what actions the City has taken since the Woolsey Fire to be better prepared and prevent a tragedy like Lahaina from occurring in Malibu.”
The report notes that the entire City of Malibu is in a California state-designated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, as are most communities in the Santa Monica Mountains. Based on fuel loading, terrain, fire weather, fire history, and other relevant factors, this characterization includes areas where the office of the State Fire Marshal identifies winds as a major cause of wildfire spread.
“Fire has been a natural and necessary part of our local ecosystem long before the area was inhabited, so the threat of wildfires has always been a reality for Malibu. However, the size, duration, and severity of the Woolsey Fire were unprecedented, and the new normal of drought and extreme weather due to climate change has meant that we have to make plans and prepare in ways we did not consider in the past,” the report continues.
The City’s proactive actions include adding three part-time fire safety liaisons—retired firefighters with 30 or more years of experience working on area wildfires—and two full-time public safety specialists. The liaisons implement fire prevention programs, such as home hardening assessments, hazardous tree removal, and public education, in addition to monitoring fire risk conditions and serving as liaisons between the City of Malibu and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. They also meet with HOAs, businesses, schools, and other organizations to offer wildfire preparedness guidance.
Fire safety liaisons are available to visit Malibu residents’ homes to lead them on visual inspections and create checklists to help guide them in hardening their homes against wildfire embers. Officials note that millions of burning embers can fly out more than two miles ahead of a wind-driven wildfire, and embers are a leading cause of homes burning down in wildfires. Simple, inexpensive things can help prevent the spread of embers, including clearing away flammable vegetation and material, like bushes and wood furniture, from touching the house and putting steel mesh over attic vents.
The City has conducted nearly 450 home wildfire hardening assessments, according to Duenas, who notes that a survey of homeowners who participated in the City’s free program found that 80 percent of them have implemented the majority of the recommendations that the liaisons provided and 23 percent implemented more than recommended.
Malibu’s public safety specialists regularly provide preparedness workshops as well as a public safety preparedness expo. They also train City staff on emergency operations and conduct annual emergency operations center exercises. One public safety specialist focuses on homelessness and works with the Sheriff’s department on outreach—finding and removing homeless encampments in Malibu’s forested hills and canyons, which are a dangerous fire hazard.
Further, the liaisons work with a City arborist to identify and remove dead and dying trees at risk of catching fire or falling from Malibu properties at no cost. Since the program’s inception, the City has been able to remove more than 500 hazardous trees.
Duenas notes that during Woolsey, one of the most immobilizing challenges in Malibu was attributable to the destruction of cell phone towers and power lines. The loss of all power and cell phone service created a serious and dangerous disruption in disseminating emergency communication to the community. With the City’s Zero Power Plan, five or more emergency supply and information stations may now be set up at logical gathering places, such as shopping centers, and marked with flags. Malibu’s Community Emergency Response Team will staff the stations and have radio communications with City officials.
Recently, the CERT team outfitted two of Malibu’s seven emergency supply bins with satellite phone and internet capabilities, with another mobile unit available to be deployed where needed. The bins, located at various sites across the city, are designed to serve as points of distribution and emergency information stations during disasters, equipped with solar power, two-way radios, and other communications equipment, plus laptops and printers. They will enable CERT and City staff to set up printed bulletin boards that provide information to the public during a communications blackout.
Duenas also stated that the City purchased a large number of bullhorns, flashing light bars, and emergency vehicle identification magnets so that their staff members can assist the Sheriff’s department with alerting residents when communications are down and assist deputies with evacuations. The City of Malibu also partnered with the CERT team, including members who are experts in emergency radio use, to place a radio repeater antenna on top of Castro Peak, a high point in the Santa Monica Mountains, that will greatly expand the reach of handheld radios so that public safety staff and CERT volunteers can communicate during disasters when power and cell phone services are out. The City provided 40 handheld radios for the CERT team and now has 16 generators to provide backup power for traffic signals to facilitate evacuations.
City staff also host an annual exercise with L.A. County Fire, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, L.A. County Public Works, Caltrans, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), L.A. County Beaches and Harbors, the Santa Monica Police Department, and the Ventura County Sheriff’s office, as well as the County Supervisor’s office and other agencies. The goal of the exercise, along with all of the City’s other efforts, is to enhance emergency response coordination and communication among the many agencies that work together during a wildfire impacting Malibu.
Following recommendations after the Woolsey Fire to find ways to help out-of-area fire crews responding in Malibu, the City obtained 47 Beacon Boxes. The weather-hardened boxes are strategically placed citywide and include printed maps and thumb drives with locations of fire hydrants, swimming pools, and other valuable, highly localized information. Thirty Beacon Box installations are complete as of August 2023.
For her part, Seeto no longer has to send deputies out to fight a fire armed only with guns. “LASD Foundation donated $50,000 to provide us with fire jackets and breathing apparatus in fire bags equipped with first aid kits, water, and other needed supplies,” Seeto shared. “The City of Calabasas helped us to prepare for disasters as well. Further, we’re building a real-time joint response center with LAFD and, thanks to the generosity and brilliance of Steve Soboroff and other business owners in Malibu, we will have California’s first Crime and Disaster center that is all privately funded.”
The minute Seeto mentioned establishing the center, Soboroff jumped into action, seeking private donations from business owners near the Civic Center Sheriff’s station that will soon open in the Santa Monica Community College building.
“The new center will be able to link in the Civic Center area, even when power is off, so as to monitor in real-time what happens during a disaster,” Soboroff explains. “When our highly respected Captain Seeto mentioned that need to me, she mentioned the amount of money to kick it off was relatively small—approximately $80,000. So, I knew I could help. I told her to give me a little time, and within 15 minutes, I raised enough money through private donations from business people in the Civic Center area. With their help, we can jump-start the new center—an effort that could have taken years to accomplish otherwise.”
Fires are inherent in Malibu. However, procedures to prepare and respond to them with the necessary infrastructure and technological assets for effective responses will constantly improve. To stay ahead of future natural disasters, Seeto suggests visiting the ALERT California website to view its cameras and sensors located throughout California to monitor wildfires and disasters in real time using near-infrared night vision.
When it comes to disasters, forewarned is forearmed, Seeto and Duenas emphasize. Seeto cautions that no matter how prepared citizens and officials are, “no disaster goes perfectly.” The key to weathering the storm is that the entire community must be prepared and cooperate when disaster hits. “We all know that someday disaster will befall us,” Seeto explained, noting that everyone has to have a plan and know how to implement it.
Reflecting on the harrowing experiences of the Woolsey Fire five years ago, the community of Malibu has transformed its pains into resilient forces for renewal, unity, and proactive preparedness. This unyielding spirit showcases not just the robustness of Malibu’s infrastructure and disaster readiness but the profound strength of its people. The community has woven together their shared memories and lessons learned from the disaster, creating a tapestry of knowledge, compassion, and unity, which will be their shield against the unpredictable wrath of nature.
Despite the scars, the Malibu community has emerged stronger, more united, fortified by the wisdom of the past, the innovations of the present, and the hopes of the future. The relentless forces of nature may remain a constant shadow, but the enduring spirit of Malibu, fortified with resolve and united by a shared history, is a beacon of light that promises to shine even in the darkest of times, exemplifying that resilience and unity can indeed turn adversities into opportunities for growth and transformation.
This article was initially published in The Malibu Times Magazine’s October/November Home edition. To read the article in its original format, visit malibutimesmag.com, out on stands now.