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The Woolsey Fire - An IMT's Worst Nightmare


The Woolsey Fire in November 2018 destroyed much of Malibu, California, cost three lives, and destroyed no less than 1,643 properties. From an emergency response and incident management perspective, this conditions created by this fire were nothing short of an IMT's worst nightmare. Why this was so is worth examining.




The draft After Action Review recently released provides a summary of what made this fire so challenging. It reads,


There AAR goes on to develop each of these points in detail and discuss the difficulties they pose. Among them were these -

  • Experience was not a great help, expectations of fire behaviour based on past events could be misleading

  • By the time the fire was approaching Malibu, firefighting resources were already fully committed elsewhere, only between 7 and 26 trucks were available instead of the estimated 1-200 required

  • Response agencies were simply overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the fire

  • The timing was the worst possible, as the Hill fire in neighbouring Ventura had already commanded most of the available reserves, and extreme conditions across the state meant that further mutual aid was impossible

  • Power and cell tower outages hampered both operational efforts and public information

  • Situational awareness was a major problem, due to night time conditions, high winds, and the inaccessibility of the terrain near the point of origin

  • Mass evacuations on this scale still pose enormous challenges

  • Lack of clarity over if and when people could return to their homes became a serious complication

In the event, it is fair to say that the response effort did quite well. If we look at the final map of the fire, we can see that it was largely contained at the wildland/urban interface where it mattered. If firefighters had been successful in preventing the single major spot over Highway 101 then damage to life and property would have been relatively minimal. Unfortunately the extreme conditions, also captured vividly in photographs contained within the AAR, rendered this impossible.



Nevertheless, questions remain, in particular over the allocation of firefighting resources and whether these could have been deployed in a more effective manner. This is certainly open to debate, however the AAR does not go into this question. It is possible these have been addressed elsewhere. One of the more sensitive issues for consideration lies in whether the properties south of 101 and north of Malibu west were defensible at all, given their location. It is not clear to what extent resources were allocated to this sector as opposed to the more defendable waterfront. The main tactic pursued on the day was 'fire front following', that is chasing the fire from the black. This makes a lot of sense from many perspectives, however it also has several drawbacks. These are similar to those raised by the 2013 Dunalley Fire explored elsewhere on this site, readers are invited to examine this issue further by looking at that discussion.


One of the more difficult questions raised in the Review is the problem of mutual expectations on the part of both the public and emergency services, the former in terms of information availability and ability to respond to 911 calls during the incident, the latter in terms of decisions over when to evacuate and at what point it was OK to return home. These turned out to be unrealistic in several key respects and a major focus of the AAR is to help address this going in to the future.


Finally, for IMT members elsewhere, the Woolsey Fire offers a useful insight into the difficulties an event of this nature can pose, and can serve as a useful aid to both planning and training activities in other areas that face a similar potential for such an extreme combination of circumstances. In this respect the AAR is well worth a read. It can be found here. For further discussion of the issues raised in this post, please comment below or else contact us at editor@avoidingcatastrophe.com

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