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Malibu's fire experience sounds familiar

In a video conference last week with the Malibu, California, city manager, Jackson County learned that even a community that is supposedly well prepared for fire can be caught off-guard.

The Woolsey fire in 2018, pushed by hot, dry winds like the Almeda and Obenchain fires, destroyed 500 residences in Malibu, many of which still haven’t been rebuilt. The frustrations of dealing with government and insurance company bureaucracy are common to all disasters, but the problems Malibu encountered with its emergency notification systems sounded eerily familiar.

Malibu had tested its reverse 911 system, and officials there thought they were prepared for orderly evacuations. As City Manager Reva Feldman noted, “We’re disaster central. We frequently burn.”

But the Woolsey fire was different. It torched 2,000 power poles, so residents could not get reverse 911 calls, texts or emails or see television warnings. That happened during the Almeda fire, too, when power failed in the fire areas. Internet service went down in Ashland, as well.

Malibu firefighters couldn’t use highways as fire breaks because the wind was sending burning embers 2 miles ahead of the flames. And the power failure meant traffic signals were out on the highway leading out of town.

In the Rogue Valley, the fire closed Interstate 5, and diverted traffic clogged arterials in Ashland. Evacuating residents clogged routes out of Talent and Phoenix as well.

With the failure of technology, it was up to emergency workers on the ground to contact residents and tell them to evacuate, in Malibu and here.

None of this means alert systems are futile. It’s essential to try every means available to reach residents in harm’s way with up-to-the-minute information. But it’s also important to realize that the even the best preparations can be foiled when disasters develop in unpredictable ways.

Local officials must examine every detail of the response to the local fires, with an eye to improving the systems and the planning for the next fire, because there will likely be a next fire, sooner or later. Meanwhile, local communities should follow Malibu’s lead as the rebuilding process begins.

That city adopted a landscape ordinance that banned vegetation within 5 feet of new construction and barred the replanting of highly flammable palm trees. Many residents are choosing metal roofs and siding as they rebuild.

Those steps and more must be part of the conversation going forward as Phoenix and Talent begin to recover from this disaster.