Emergency management officials were unprepared for massive evacuations before the most destructive fire in Los Angeles County history, causing chaos and calls for mutual aid that were not provided in the first critical hours of the Woolsey fire, according to a detailed accounting released Wednesday.
The long-anticipated report, which will be made public at a hearing Saturday, details a wind-blown blaze of “epic proportions” that overwhelmed the region’s emergency response institutions. Agencies were hesitant to offer more help because they had already dispatched firefighters elsewhere or were worried about a blaze breaking out in their backyard.
The report said Woolsey should serve as a warning when multiple fires break out at once: Residents must take responsibility for their own preparedness and safety.
The destructive fire began Nov. 8, eventually consuming 151 square miles – roughly a third the size of the city of Los Angeles – and destroying 1,600 structures from Westlake Village to Malibu. It caused as much as $5 billion in damages and at least three deaths – and in its charred path left anger, concern and unanswered questions across the region about how emergency officials responded.
The findings add to concerns raised over the last year about how the massive fire was battled. A Los Angeles Times investigation in January found that the first critical hours of the firefight were stymied by communication breakdowns and a scarcity of air tanker support, equipment and firefighters.
In more than 204 pages, the county report seeks to address many of those lingering questions, as it examines the limits of the regional emergency response, including a lack of visible fire engines patrolling neighborhoods.
The report includes dozens of recommendations to help prepare for future catastrophes – including a clear warning to residents about their role in emergencies.
“The public has a perception that public agencies can always protect them,” the report reads. “As an incident the size of the Woolsey Fire shows, this is not always possible.”
That fact became clear to many residents in the path of the fire, which grew so quickly and powerfully across a wide swath of terrain – even in an area that has experienced plenty of catastrophic fires.
According to the report, the Woolsey fire forced firefighters to compete for resources as a fire in Paradise, Calif., was already established and another had broken out in Ventura County 30 minutes earlier and closer to homes and buildings.
Initially, the Hill fire in Ventura posed the greater threat. It started about 2 p.m. Nov. 8 and jumped U.S. 101 in its first 15 minutes, trapped hundreds of motorists on the freeway and moved three miles in 15 minutes.
In the Woolsey fire’s first hour, 12 aircraft and 27 fire engines were sent to battle the flames, but one aircraft and two engines that were requested as part of that package from Ventura County Fire were denied. At least 100 engines were on the Hbecause of downed lines or fire dangers.