Initial attack on Woolsey Fire was hampered by shortage of resources

The quickly spreading Hill Fire started 21 minutes before, 15 miles to the west

3D Map Woolsey Fire Ventura County Los Angeles d-D
3-D Map of the Woolsey Fire. The red line was the perimeter. Click to enlarge.

No wildfire starts at the right time, but the fire that Los Angeles County describes as the worst in the county’s modern history began at a particularly bad time. The Woolsey Fire was reported on November 8, 2018 21 minutes after the Hill Fire about 15 miles to the west. Both began in Ventura County in Southern California while strong Santa Ana winds were blowing out of the north and northeast. The Camp Fire which started about 8 hours earlier in Northern California had already destroyed thousands of homes in the Paradise area.

The incident commanders decided that the Hill Fire had the greatest immediate potential to affect lives and property — there were fewer homes close to the point of origin of the Woolsey Fire.

Progression map Woolsey Fire
Progression map of the north side of the Woolsey Fire, prepared by the Incident Management Team. Click to enlarge.

With resources flooding in to the Hill Fire, the first unit to arrive at the Woolsey fire got there almost 20 minutes after it was reported. In a densely populated part of the country where it is common to have hundreds of engines on a rapidly spreading wildfire within hours, after 60 minutes only 11 engines were on scene.

About 12 minutes after it was reported, the quickly growing Hill Fire jumped the 101 Freeway but 2 hours later it hit an area that had burned in 2013 and slowed, allowing firefighters to make significant progress. By midnight the incident commander shifted some resources over to the Woolsey Fire which had spread to Agoura Hills.

By 4 a.m. on November 9 pushed by increasing winds gusting to 70 mph, the Woolsey Fire crossed the 101 Freeway and at the end of the day had spread to the Pacific Ocean, 20 miles from where it started a little more than 24 hours before.

Map Woolsey Fire Ventura County Los Angeles
Map of the Woolsey and Hill Fires.

Stats: Hill Fire / Woolsey Fire

  • Acres: 4,500 / 97,000
  • Structures destroyed: 4 / 1,500
  • Fatalities: 0 / 3
  • Length (miles): 4 / 20

The Hill Fire had far more firefighting resources assigned during the first six hours, compared to the Woolsey Fire which was starved of engines and aircraft during that period. But the Hill Fire spread into a previous burn and slowed which made the firefighters’ jobs easier.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Los Angeles Times about the fire.

…Veteran firefighters say it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“In my 30 years of experience, I’ve never seen a fire that explosive,” [Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Trevor]  Richmond said. “Seeing how quickly that fire traveled to Agoura Hills and Oak Park and Thousand Oaks and jumped the freeway the next morning, and in four hours, it’s burning kelp beds in the Pacific Ocean — that’s pretty incredible.

“This one was the big one,” he said.


[Ventura County Fire Assistant Chief Dustin] Gardner said he was repeatedly on the phone begging the state to send more tankers to Ventura County, arguing the Woolsey fire had the potential to hit Malibu, not realizing how bad the Camp fire had become. Within the first hour of the Hill fire, the incident commander doubled his order from four to eight air tankers.

Soon after, a dispatcher asked him if they could divert one of his fire’s tankers to the Woolsey fire, which was potentially going to threaten homes and businesses in Simi Valley.

“You can divert one of the air tankers,” Ventura County Fire Assistant Chief Chad Cook, the Hill fire incident commander, said. “We’ll keep the rest of them here.”

About 40 minutes later, at 3:37 p.m., a dispatcher told the Hill fire incident commander two air tankers and two helitankers would soon arrive to fight the blaze. Only a few minutes later, the Woolsey incident commander was told by a dispatcher that the region had no more air tankers it could send, but that there were multiple helicopters available.

About an hour later, the Woolsey incident commander seemed to be frustrated by his tanker requests going unfilled.

“I’d like to talk to my neighboring fire (commander) and see if I can get some from him,” the Woolsey incident commander told his aerial coordinator over the radio at 4:26 p.m.

“Correct, sir,” the aerial coordinator said. “We’ve been trying to negotiate resource sharing. We’ll see how that goes.”

But the Woolsey fire began spreading at a much faster pace — with far fewer firefighters on the ground than were battling the Hill fire…

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.