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The 2018 Woolsey Fire

Copyright © 2018 by David E. Ross

To protect the privacy of our friends mentioned in the following narrative, I give only their first names and last initials.

In the afternoon of 8 November 2018, fire broke out at the old Rocketdyne facility in the Santa Susanna mountains east of the city of Simi Valley and west of Chatsworth (a Los Angeles neighborhood). At that time, wind patterns indicated that the fire would miss Oak Park but might affect the wealthy North Ranch neighborhood of Thousand Oaks. As the fire grew, it was named the Woolsey Fire.

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"Mandatory evacuation" is a misnomer. At least in California, no one can be mandated (forced) to evacuate. What is really meant is that, if you fail to evacuate when the order is issued, first responders — fire crews and police — might not help you later if you realize that you are indeed at risk of death. Also, it means that if you indeed evacuate, you can be prohibited from returning until the order is revoked.

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The wind shifted slightly as we ate our dinner. I heard a sheriff's squad car drive down our street, emitting an announcement through its loud speaker. Since our house has double-paned windows that block much outdoor sound from entering the house, all we could hear was a voice without making out any words. I called 911 and was informed that Oak Park was under a voluntary evacuation notice. I asked the dispatcher where the nearest evacuation shelter was located, and she replied that it was at Oak Park High School. Several years ago, we had subscribed to a Ventura County service to receive phone calls about emergency situations; and less than an hour later our phone rang. The robocall informed us that a mandatory evacuation order had been issued. We packed drugs, some clothing, and other items into our car and went to Oak Park High School.

Although there were many cars in the parking lot and people milling around, the buildings at Oak Park High School were all locked. We saw flames on the hill behind the Oak Park Community Center across the street. A sheriff's squad car pulled into the parking lot, and we were all told to leave immediately. I asked the deputy where should we go. He replied that we should merely go down Kanan Road and that he did not know where we would find any shelters. The traffic leaving Oak Park and adjacent Agoura Hills on Kanan Road was so heavy, it took us about a half hour to travel the 2.5 miles to the Ventura Freeway (US 101). Because of the heavy traffic, we could not change lanes and wound up headed towards the San Fernando Valley.

When we reached the Valley, we pulled into a shopping center parking lot, and I called 911 on Evelyn's cell phone. I asked for the location of evacuation centers and were told to go to Taft High School on Ventura Boulevard at Winnetka Avenue. Taft High School's evacuation center was full, and they were turning away new evacuees. In another call to 911, I was told to go to Pierce College on Victory Boulevard, entering at Mason Avenue. Pierce College's evacuation center was also full. In the meantime, those calls also referred us to an evacuation center in Camarillo and at Borchard Park in Newbury Park. Camarillo could not be reached because the smaller Hill Fire caused Ventura Freeway to be closed between Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. So we went to Borchard Park, arriving about 2:00 am on 9 November.

The evacuation center at Borchard Park was also full. However, they allowed us to park and sleep in our car and also to use their restrooms. Cars are not meant for sleeping. It was cold and very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, we did doze off despite occasional alarms from other cars. We were awakened by Evelyn's cell phone ringing sometime around 5:00 am or 6:00 am. It was our daughter Heather, anxiously calling to find out where we were and whether we were safe. When we described our situation to her, she said she thought she could provide some help — all the way from her home in Canada! An hour later, she woke us again to tell us that Hal and Ruth B. would let us stay at their home in Simi Valley.

We immediately drove to Simi Valley and the home of Ruth and Hal B. They provided breakfast, not only for us but also for a number of others in their house. Besides another couple who were displaced by the Woolsey Fire, Ruth and Hal were hosting some out-of-town visitors. After breakfast, Ruth, Hal, and their out-of-town visitors left to attend the dedication of the grave marker of a friend and relative. When they returned, Ruth said she had another phone call from Heather, who indicated that two families that we know had already returned to their homes in Oak Park. We left immediately for our home.

We had to take a circuitous route to Oak Park in order to avoid the sheriff's roadblocks. On the way, we went through the North Ranch neighborhood of Thousand Oaks and saw flames on a hill immediately behind some very luxurious homes. Finally reaching Oak Park, there were flames in the Medea Creek Natural Park on both sides of Oak Park High School. At our house, the sky was blue and clear upwind. In the late afternoon, we lost both Internet service and cable TV, both provided by Spectrum. Spectrum said they could not restore service until the area was no longer an evacuation area. We had French toast for dinner, and we went very early to sleep in our own bed. Making up for the lack of sleep in the Borchard Park parking lot, we slept for about 10 hours, waking up at 6:45 am on 10 November when Heather called us again. She excitedly told us that a house was on fire "a couple of blocks away" in Oak Park on Peregrine Circle. Although Peregrine Circle was about five blocks away and downwind from us, Evelyn insisted we again had to evacuate.

We had heard there was an evacuation center at the Goebel Senior Center in Thousand Oaks. We arrived there in time for breakfast. At last, we found an evacuation center that was not yet full. We were given a nice breakfast and allocated two cots in a relatively quiet room. Evelyn, however, suggested we call our friend Diane M. to see if she could put us up. Evelyn thought we could then make room for others in the evacuation center. Diane welcomed us. After I went with Diane to shop for groceries — we insisted on paying — we settled in her house in Newbury Park. We stayed there two nights, sleeping in a real bed and not on cots. When we awoke on Monday, 12 November, Diane informed us she heard on TV that the evacuation order Oak Park had been cancelled. After a quick breakfast, we returned home, finding no impact whatsoever to our house.

Rain — heavy enought to create flash floods and mud flows — have extinguished the fires.
What I report below is based on what I could glean from news reports, but it might not be accurate.

The Woolsey Fire scorched over 98,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. Between those two counties, over 295,000 persons were displaced by evacuation orders. At least three people died, and about 1,500 homes and businesses were destroyed (17 homes in Oak Park).

Neither Ventura County nor Los Angeles County were prepared to handle the large number of evacuees. Compounding that problem was a serious lack of communication. For example, emergency dispatchers at 911 continued to direct evacuees to centers that were full and turning away new arrivals.

Because the Rocketdyne facility became a serious toxic site before operations there ceased — including the remains of the meltdown of a nuclear reactor that occurred about 40 years ago — there is some concern that health impacts from the smoke and ash from the Woolsey fire might be more serious than from other fires.

While the Woolsey Fire affected a significant portion of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, the Camp Fire in northern California became the worst wildfire in California history. The Camp Fire obliterated the town of Paradise. That fire burned more than 154,000 acres, killed at least 85 persons, displaced at least 52,000, and destroyed almost 14,000 homes.

Begin Rant

President Donald Trump aggressively politicized the disasters of the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire, proving once again that he is a major source of the fake news he so often condemns.

First, Trump denounced environmental laws that he claims send too much water into the Pacific Ocean. This reflects criticism by local farmers and Republican officials of protections for the delta smelt that reduce the availability of water for irrigation. They fail to realize that the delta smelt are part of the food chain that supports commercial fishing. I like to eat salmon and tuna, both of which feed on the delta smelt or on larger fish that, in turn, feed on the delta smelt. What would Trump do with more water to prevent wildfires? Would he have us irrigate the brush on steep hillsides? In any case, there was no shortage of water for fighting fires.

Second, Trump claimed that the fires were the result of mismanagement of our state's forests. This is quite wrong for several reasons.

If Trump wants to blame someone for forest mismanagement, he should look in a mirror.

End Rant

Updated 4 December 2018

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