The Woolsey Fire was a wildfire that burned in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties of the U.S. state of California. The fire ignited on November 8, 2018, and burned 96,949 acres (39,234 hectares) of land. The fire destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people. It was one of several fires in California that ignited on the same day. While the nearby Hill Fire was contained with minimal damage on November 16, the Camp Fire in Northern California destroyed most of the town of Paradise, killing 85 people.
The fire raced through the chaparral-covered steep canyons where it encountered historic movie and TV sets, small ranches, and the houses of celebrities. Hundreds of houses in Malibu were destroyed or damaged on both sides of Pacific Coast Highway. Many of these were on Point Dume that juts out from the narrow coastal terrace that lies between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The mitigation measures Pepperdine University had in place successfully protected the campus, with students sheltering in place, to the south. The entire sparsely populated portion of the Malibu coast west to the community of Solromar, which includes state and national parklands, suffered damage from the fire. The fire cost at least $6 billion (2018 USD) in property damage.
Thousands of residents were kept away from their houses in numerous neighborhoods along the Ventura Freeway and the communities along the Malibu coast. The evacuations frustrated residents as they lasted for many days as the fire continued to threaten houses especially when the winds increased and fanned the flames. The evacuated residents were incrementally allowed to return to see if their houses were damaged or destroyed as the fire continued to spread through the rugged wilderness at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains. Authorities in many of the damaged communities declared that they needed to prevent residents from returning quickly as neighborhoods were crowded with crews repairing downed power lines and other hazardous conditions. In the months after the fire, people[who?] criticized what they thought was a slow and inadequate response by cities and counties during public meetings held by public officials.
While this and other fires were burning, President Donald Trump blamed poor forest management by the state. One fire scientist explained that forest management (good or bad) had a minor influence on the severity of the fires, and that Woolsey was not a forest fire.
At 2:22 p.m. PST on Nov 8, Southern California Edison reported an outage on the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of the Chatsworth substation on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property, south of Simi Valley, Ventura County, California. At 2:24 p.m. PST a brush fire was reported in the same location. The first firefighters arrived almost 20 minutes later due to complications of resources because of the nearby Hill Fire. The nearest fire crew, part of a private company contracted to protect Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a Boeing Company facility nearby, was delayed by its engine breaking down. Powerful Santa Ana winds, reaching 50 to 60 mph (80 to 97 km/h), caused the fire to spread rapidly and beyond firefighting capabilities. During the overnight hours into the early morning of November 9, the fire crossed U.S. Route 101 near Calabasas and spread through Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills. Aerial suppression of the fire was unable to commence until 5:00 a.m. PST, November 9, when winds lessened enough.
On the morning of November 9, Assistant L.A. County Fire Chief Williams told KBUU-LP that his request for 70 strike teams had been denied. The blaze spread rapidly throughout the day burning through the mountains and along the 101 Freeway, eventually reaching Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu by the afternoon devastating numerous houses there. Firefighters and firetrucks who did not know the area were reported idle by many frustrated citizens. Several homeowners stayed despite the mandatory evacuation to defend their houses.Pepperdine University in Malibu recommended that students shelter in place in specific buildings on campus rather than use the crowded highway to evacuate. Farther north, the flames spread to portions of Thousand Oaks, Bell Canyon, Westlake Village, Oak Park and the West Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles forcing residential evacuations and the closure of numerous business and corporate offices in the region. On the day before the Hill and Woolsey fires started, residents in the Conejo Valley experienced the shooting of thirteen people in a bar including a police officer and the perpetrator. As the fires threatened the community and otherwise disrupted their routine, memorial services had to be postponed.
By November 9, Cal Fire and the United States Forest Service were also helping local services with the fire. This resulted in 3,242 firefighters being deployed to contain the blaze by the morning of November 10. The fire had engulfed more than 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of land, forcing the evacuation of an estimated 295,000 people from 105,000 residences. This included an unprecedented total evacuation of Bell Canyon, Malibu,Agoura Hills, Malibou Lake, and Oak Park.
Before sunrise on November 14, the fire flared up in rugged wilderness at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains with winds blowing strongly. The fire burned well away from populated neighborhoods, but was threatening scattered home sites. The flare-up sent a huge column of smoke over Point Mugu and out to sea.
By November 21 at 6:11 p.m. PST, the fire was 100% contained.
The burn scar of the fire in and above Malibu in a January 2019 aerial view.
Satellite image of the fire on November 9. The majority of western Malibu is engulfed by smoke and fire at the time of this image, with the blaze spreading into Thousand Oaks.
Many of the public and private parks and trails within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area were closed indefinitely as damage due to the fire was being evaluated and necessary remediation measures were put in place. Closures included Malibu Creek State Park and Zuma Beach. Property owned by the federal government within the national recreation area includes some developed parks and large undeveloped tracts of land. The fire caused trails to be shut for months as 88% of the federal parkland was burned. The fire created a challenge to native plants as black mustard with bright yellow flowers quickly established itself post-fire.
Two people were found dead in a vehicle on Mulholland Highway in Malibu. Emergency personnel were unable to reach the victims when a report of a critical burn victim was relayed, due to downed power lines. On Tuesday November 13, a third victim was discovered in the 32000 block of Lobo Canyon Road in Agoura Hills. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced on January 22, 2019, that charred human remains had been found in the burn area in Malibu and that homicide detectives were trying to determine if the victim had been killed in the flames or had met with foul play.
Reporters and officials rescued animals from houses, and brought them to shelters and vets. Other animals at locations such as Malibu Wines were either evacuated or cared for at the locations. Local fire officials opened Zuma Beach as an evacuation point for large animals, with pictures by the Los Angeles Times, showing llamas, alpacas, and horses tied to lifeguard stations and poles.
On November 10, President Donald Trump, stated poor forest management by the state of California as the cause of the Woolsey Fire and the concurrent Camp Fire. In a controversial tweet, the President threatened to end federal assistance unless the state improves its "gross mismanagement of the forests".
The small groves of California sycamores and coast live oaks amidst the sage and chaparral covered hillsides in the area of the fire are not considered to be forests as commonly understood by the public or wildfire experts. Since these small, critical habitats are not logged, President Trump's statements had little relevance to the Southern California fire.
The firemens' union disagreed with President Trump's claims, noting that California experienced unusually dry conditions and abnormally high fire danger at the time. Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, described Trump's assertion about the state's forest management practices as "dangerously wrong," noting that 60 percent of California forests are directly managed by the federal government, which has reduced spending on forestry in recent years.
California Public Utilities Commission launched a probe into Southern California Edison who reported a problem with a transmission grid at the point of origin two minutes before the start of the fire. The redacted version of the Ventura County Fire Department Woolsey report, that was released in October 2020, concluded that the fire was started by electrical equipment associated with the Big Rock 16kV circuit that is owned and operated by Southern California Edison.
A 2019 Los Angeles County report on missteps in the government's handling of the Woolsey Fire response (the 'Woolsey Report') cited the unavailability of firefighting units in Western Malibu during critical times of the fire, where hundreds of houses were lost. The report stated: "a significant number of requests by political figures to check on specific addresses of homes to ensure their protection distracted from Department leadership to accomplish priority objectives" which included a personal request to the city fire chief by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.
The laboratory site has been undergoing a cleanup of the contamination from cleanup a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 and extensive rocket engine testing. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control found in their 2021 final report that the fire did not cause contaminants to be released from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory into Simi Valley and other neighboring communities. “Radioactive microparticles related to the Woolsey Fire in Simi Valley, Ca.” was published by the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in 2021. The study examined 360 samples collected after the fire of household dust, surface soils and ash from 150 homes and other locations such as parks and trails and found some samples contained "high activities of radioactive isotopes associated with the Santa Susana Field Laboratory" though most were at normal levels.
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