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Burned California town shares lessons learned from fire

Almost two years after a wildfire destroyed 500 houses in Malibu, the California beach town has rebuilt just 10 houses.

The town’s ordeal from the November 2018 Woolsey fire offers important lessons as the Rogue Valley works to recover from the devastating Almeda fire that started Sept. 8.

Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman briefed Jackson County officials via videoconference Thursday on what the town of 13,000 learned from the Woolsey fire and the rebuilding process.

“I don’t want to sugar-coat anything for you,” she said.

Although only 10 houses have been rebuilt in Malibu, 150 are under construction and another 250 have won planning approval, she said.

Many Malibu homes had been individually designed and built, so replacing them required architectural design and engineering work, which lengthened the process, Feldman said.

Although Malibu has a reputation for being a haven for celebrities, many of the destroyed houses belonged to long-time residents with average incomes, including teachers, she said.

Santa Rosa, California, lost nearly 3,000 homes to the 2017 Tubbs fire, but has 2,000 homes either completed or in the rebuilding process. Many of those homes were parts of subdivisions, and residents were able to get building plans from the developers, streamlining the process, Feldman said.

Debris removal

Before people could rebuild, Malibu partnered with the state of California on a massive effort to clean up the fire debris, much of which was hazardous. The state billed insurance companies for the cleanup or, if property owners didn’t have enough insurance, covered the costs, she said.

Debris removal started a few months after the Woolsey fire was out. The majority of properties were cleared within six months and almost all were cleaned up by the one-year mark, Feldman said.

Most residents opted to take part in the state-directed cleanup effort, but some opted out and tried to take on the task themselves by hiring haulers. However, those who clean up hazardous waste must be licensed and able to take the debris to a facility that will accept it, she said.

“I get where people are trying to cut costs, but you’ve got to get it done right,” she said.

Feldman said some people wanted to do the cleanup themselves in hopes of saving their house foundations. However, the concrete and rebar were often damaged by the heat of the wildfire. Malibu required engineers to certify that leftover foundations were safe.

Unscrupulous haulers who weren’t qualified to remove the debris took advantage of some residents, she said.

For the Almeda fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Oregon are covering 100% of the cost of hazardous debris removal. Work could start in mid-October.

It’s not yet clear who will pay to remove the rest of the debris, although local officials are lobbying for outside funding to help cover what property owners and insurance policies can’t.

Feldman said the volume of debris that had to be removed for Malibu’s 500 destroyed homes was staggering.

The Almeda fire destroyed 2,490 residential structures, 164 business structures and four government structures, primarily in Phoenix and Talent and on their outskirts.

“It’s mind-boggling the amount of trucks that will come into your communities to clear these properties,” Feldman said.

Temporary housing

Many Malibu residents who lost their homes rented somewhere else in town, stayed with relatives or moved a 30-minute drive away to Los Angeles, Feldman said.

With the rental vacancy rate hovering near 0% in Jackson County, residents here don’t have as many options. The area has long struggled with a lack of affordable housing.

“We didn’t have quite the housing crunch I’ve seen here in Oregon,” Feldman said.

For Malibu residents, once their property was cleared of debris, they were allowed to live onsite in trailers while their houses were rebuilt.

Local government officials and community members are working to identify parcels of land where temporary utilities could be put in to serve displaced residents living in trailers. The Jackson County government itself has a large parcel across the railroad tracks from Phoenix that could be put to use.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said given the lack of available rentals, officials are going to push for temporary trailers, including FEMA trailers, for many who need housing. He said the goal is to identify land that will allow Phoenix and Talent area residents to stay close to their communities.

FEMA prefers to give financial aid to residents so they can rent existing homes and apartments, but that won’t help enough local people whose homes burned, Jordan said.

He said about half of the structures lost to the Almeda fire were inside Talent and Phoenix, and the remaining half were in the county.

Fire resilience

Both the Almeda fire and Woolsey fire were fast-moving infernos driven by hot, dry winds. At the time each started, Malibu and Jackson County were under red flag warnings due to wind and the extreme risk of fire.

The city of Malibu thought it was reasonably prepared for a fire. It had tested its reverse 9-1-1 system that sends out emergency alerts and had satellite phones and other gear to deal with disruptions.

“We’re disaster central. We frequently burn,” Feldman said.

But the Woolsey fire was only one of three major fires that broke out that day in California, including the Camp fire that leveled Paradise, California, and killed more than 80 people. The Woolsey fire killed three and forced the evacuation of more than 295,000 people.

As the fire advanced toward Malibu, firefighters tried to use a major highway as a fire break, but they were no match for winds that swept embers two miles ahead of the flames.

The fire was 14 miles wide and wiped out more than 2,000 power poles. People weren’t able to get the reverse 9-1-1 system’s calls, texts and emails, and they couldn’t watch warnings on television, Feldman said.

She said she was working in her area’s emergency operations center, unaware the public wasn’t getting the evacuation alerts.

It was only the actions of those on the ground that saved people’s lives — not the alert system, Feldman said.

The traffic signals on the highway out of Malibu stopped working and people were stuck in the roadway. It took hours to get all four lanes of the two-way highway switched over to an exit-only direction, she said.

The Almeda fire also clogged traffic as evacuees fled, and officials have faced criticism over a lack of adequate emergency alerts through the reverse 9-1-1 system used here.

After the fire in Malibu, officials held meetings for a year analyzing what happened and figuring out how to improve operations and be better prepared, Feldman said.

On the rebuilding front, Malibu adopted a landscape ordinance for new construction that bans vegetation within five feet of homes and blocks people from replanting palm trees, which exploded into flames during the fire.

Many residents are choosing to rebuild with metal roofs and siding, and a new staff person who advises people on fire resilient landscaping has been a popular addition.

“We all want to be fire-safe communities. This is our new reality,” Feldman said.

During the Woolsey fire, hundreds of neighbors helped fight the fire. Malibu has developed a neighborhood firefighting program, and participation in its Community Emergency Response Team program has boomed, she said.

Rogue Valley communities also have residents and CERT teams that helped during the Almeda fire and its aftermath. Residents of isolated Butte Falls were especially active helping firefighters on the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County.

Feldman said local communities have to be more prepared to deal with wildfires and the recovery process. The public sometimes thinks FEMA will step in and solve everything, but the federal disaster agency is stretched thin coping with COVID-19 nationally, fires in the West and hurricanes in the East.

Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlyyn was also scheduled to talk to Jackson County Commissioners on Thursday about his city’s experience rebuilding from the 2017 Tubbs fire. He couldn’t take part in the Zoom meeting because the city has lost homes and remains at risk from the 56,000-acre Glass fire burning in central California.

“The threat of fire never ends,” Feldman said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The 2018 Woolsey fire burns palm trees in Malibu, Calif. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
The Woolsey fire swept over the Santa Monica mountains to the coastal town of Malibu, Calif., in 2018. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu