Power company to pay $360 million to settle wildfire lawsuits

The settlement addresses costs after three fires in southern California started by electrical equipment burned 378,000 acres in 2017 and 2018 destroying over 2,600 structures

Above: 3-D map of the Thomas Fire, looking north. The red line was the perimeter at 12:30 a.m. PST December 17, 2017. 

Southern California Edison has reached an agreement to settle lawsuits with 23 public entities for taxpayer losses caused by wildfires attributed to the power company’s equipment. The settlement is related to damage and expenses incurred during and after three fires in 2017 and 2018, the Thomas Fire, Woolsey Fire, as well as the Koenigstein Fire which burned into the Thomas Fire. The agreement also addresses the debris flows that killed 20 people in Montecito when rains washed mud off the barren slopes of the Thomas Fire.

The $360 million settlement is for public entities only and does not affect the claims of residents, individuals, or businesses affected by the fires and debris flows.

“While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” said John Fiske an attorney who represented local governments. “A lot of these communities … were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost.”

In December, 2017 the Thomas Fire burned over 281,000 acres and 1,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in Southern California. The Woolsey Fire destroyed over 1,600 structures and burned nearly 97,000 acres north of Malibu, California in November, 2018.

The public entities involved in the agreement include Los Angeles County, Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Consolidated Fire Protection District of Los Angeles, Ventura County, Ventura County Watershed Protection, Ventura County Fire Protection District, City of Malibu, City of Agoura Hills, City of Calabasas, City of Hidden Hills, City of Thousand Oaks, City of Westlake Village, Conejo Recreation and Park District, Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Santa Barbara County Fire Protection District, City of Santa Barbara, City of San Buenaventura, Montecito Water District, Montecito Fire Protection District, and Carpinteria Summerland Fire Protection District.

One year ago today — the Woolsey Fire

The fire destroyed over 1,600 structures and burned nearly 97,000 acres north of Malibu, California

Above: A CL-415 super scooper air tanker drops water on the second day of the Woolsey Fire, November 9, 2019. stonebrookphotography

When the Woolsey Fire started at about 2 p.m. on November 8, 2018 the humidity was five percent and the wind was gusting out of the north and northeast at 40 to 50 mph. At 5:15 the next morning it jumped the 12-lane 101 freeway and before noon ran for another six miles to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 15 miles from the point where it started 22 hours before.

It ignited in Woolsey Canyon on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property, a complex of industrial facilities owned by Boeing above the Simi Valley near the Los Angeles/Ventura county line in southern California.

Two other major fires had already started earlier that day, drawing some of the firefighting resources that could have been used on the Woolsey Fire. The Camp Fire started early that morning wiping out much of Paradise in northern California before noon. Then the Hill Fire ignited at about 1 p.m. south of Thousand Oaks 13 miles southwest of where the Woolsey Fire began an hour later. The Hill Fire eventually burned over 4,500 acres and required the evacuation of 17,000 residents.

An After Action Review released in October by Los Angeles County listed some of the issues that affected the management and suppression of the Woolsey Fire that destroyed over 1,600 structures and burned nearly 97,000 acres.

Progression map Woolsey Fire
Progression map of the Woolsey Fire, November 17, 2018. Perimeters produced by the Incident Management Team. Adapted by Wildfire Today.

Draft report released for the Woolsey Fire has 94 recommendations

The fire burned over 96,000 acres and destroyed 1,600 structures in southern California in November, 2018

Above: Progression map of the Woolsey Fire, November 17, 2018. Perimeters produced by the Incident Management Team. Adapted by Wildfire Today.

A draft After Action Review was released by Los Angeles County that details some of the issues that affected the management and suppression of the Woolsey Fire that destroyed 1,600 structures and burned nearly 97,000 acres.

When fire started at about 2 p.m. on November 8, 2018 the humidity was five percent and the wind was gusting out of the north and northeast at 40 to 50 mph. At 5:15 the next morning, Friday November 9, it jumped the 12-lane 101 freeway and before noon it ran for another six miles to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 15 miles from the point where it started 22 hours before.

Thursday November 8 was a busy day in California. Just before midnight the night before there was a mass shooting incident leaving 12 dead at a bar in Thousand Oaks, just west of where the fire was hours later. The Camp Fire started early Thursday morning wiping out much of Paradise in northern California before noon. Then the Hill Fire started at about 1 p.m. south of Thousand Oaks about 13 miles southwest of where the Woolsey Fire started an hour later. The Hill Fire eventually burned over 4,500 acres and required the evacuation of 17,000 residents. While firefighters were still initially responding to the Hill Fire the Woolsey Fire ignited at about 2 p.m. Strike teams of engines and crews were already en route to northern California, so right away there was competition for firefighting resources with three major fires burning simultaneously in the state.

The Woolsey Fire started in Ventura County but spread into Los Angeles County. Very large portions of the blaze were in both counties, testing the capabilities of LA City, LA County, and the Ventura County Fire Department. The report states that even though the three organizations “regularly plan for and practice their response to a large fire in the region, they could not have planned for a complete exhaustion of California’s limited firefighting resources brought on by a regional wildfire weather threat in conjunction with the Camp Fire, a mass casualty shooting in Ventura County, and the Ventura County Hill Fire, which began just before the Woolsey Fire started.”

With large numbers of firefighting resources committed to the three major fires, and with the dry, windy weather continuing, many agencies had to think hard about continuing to send more and more firefighters to the Hill and Woolsey Fires in case more incidents broke out. Approximately half the resource orders for the Woolsey Fire were UTF, Unable to Fill.

The fire presented a number of complexities, according to the report:

  • The location and topography, which presented severe challenges for initial attack.
  • The early November sunset, which grounded non-night-flying aircraft.
  • Early and mid-evening wind shifts when the fire was still outside heavily populated areas.
  • The fire’s crossing of the 12-lane Highway 101 before dawn on Friday.
  • The defense of both sides of the populated areas along Highway 101 consumed fire attack resources just as the fire began the run to Malibu.
  • Very limited initial resources in Malibu Friday morning due to fire ferocity and fire- or wind-caused road damage blocking Santa Monica Mountain and Malibu roads, including evacuation routes.

In Los Angeles County 1,075 homes and 46 commercial structures were destroyed. Approximately 57,000 structures were saved.

The After Action Review was written by a consulting firm, Citygate Associates of Folsom, California. The draft 204-page document has 155 findings and 94 recommendations, including:

  • Improve methods and tools for communicating with the public.
  • There was not a clear, single, comprehensive voice speaking to evacuation, and not all notification tools were used or used often enough.
  • There was an over-reliance on Twitter; care must also be taken to account for the digital divide in which not everyone is on Twitter or even the internet.
  • Entry and repopulation policies were not well briefed to checkpoints or the public.
  • There is a need for greater inter-agency pre-incident evacuation and repopulation planning for the communities in Fire Hazard Severity Zones. No pre-prepared traffic evacuation plans/scenarios exist for the areas impacted by the Woolsey Fire. Evacuation plans also need corresponding repopulation plans at the earliest moment.
  • The following are needed to improve situational awareness: Research and investment in emerging technologies to reduce the “fog of war”. Increased practice, procedures, and technologies in melding the large County agency DOCs and Incident Management Teams (IMTs) into a virtual unified command, as if they were in one physical location, to reduce lag time in fast-tempo, complicated decisions. Real-time display of fire perimeter, hazards, actions, shelters, and evacuation orders for public consumption.
  • Improve coordination of multiple-agency emergency public messages.
  • Increase the speed and use of all alerting tools in wide-area, fast-paced disasters.
  • Address the impact of long-distance fire storm ember spotting through education and an emphasis on using layered buffer zones of appropriate defensible space and structure hardening techniques.
  • Encourage the major fire departments in the area to evaluate creating a sub-regional (three county) Multiple-Agency Coordination and Control Center within the State mutual aid system that will utilize technology to enhance situational awareness and create a shared, real-time intelligence, information, and command center on a round-the-clock basis. This concept should further existing agreements and enhance the ability of agencies to work collaboratively during the first one to two days of a catastrophic disaster, for the common welfare, at a pace faster than the Statewide mutual aid system can provide.

The county expects to hold at least two public meetings to present the report and solicit public input.

The Draft Woolsey Fire AAR is a very large 22 Mb file.

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Woolsey Fire.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Tax relief for victims of November 8 wildfires in California

Applies to victims of the Camp and Woolsey Fires

IRSPeople who reside in or had businesses in the areas that burned in the wildfires that started in California on November 8, 2018 could qualify for federal tax relief.

The Camp and Woolsey Fires destroyed thousands of homes in Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Since the President declared the fires to be major disasters residents with losses in those locations may be able to take advantage of slightly extended deadlines for filing federal tax returns.

In addition, taxpayers in the federally declared disaster areas have the option of claiming disaster-related casualty losses on their federal income tax return for either the year in which the event occurred, or the prior year. See IRS Publication 547 for details. IRS Publication 976 has instructions for tax relief for the California fires of 2017.

Individuals may deduct personal property losses that are not covered by insurance or other reimbursements. IRS Form 4684, Casualties and Thefts, has more details.

General information about the program can be found at the IRS website.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Report: CAL FIRE prevented insurance company fire engines from accessing customers’ homes during Woolsey Fire

Satellite photo smoke Woolsey Fire
Satellite photo showing smoke from the Woolsey Fire at 10:42 a.m. PST November 9, 2018. Click to enlarge.

For the last 12 years we have been aware of insurance companies sending fire engines to protect high-valued homes covered by their policies when a wildfire approaches. Companies such as Chubb figure keeping a multi-million dollar home from burning is less expensive than paying to rebuild it, so they contract with Wildfire Defense and other companies to send firefighters to their customers properties when smoke is in the air.

The tricky part is intermixing the private crews with the existing incident management organization. Some jurisdictions view the insurance company crews as personnel that need to be protected, rather than fellow firefighters engaged in the fire fight. This became very evident during the Woolsey Fire in November when CAL FIRE prohibited the private engine crews from accessing their customers’ homes, including mansions in Malibu, California.

Below is an excerpt from the Malibu Times:

…While benefits seem obvious for insurance companies, statewide fire officials point out they complicate firefighting efforts for central command, since they cannot communicate readily with rank-and-file crews. Now, in the fallout of the Woolsey Fire—where resources were spread so thin many homes did not see any fire engines at all—questions are being asked about why private crews were turned away.

Malibu resident Ron Krisel, who is insured by USAA (only available to active, retired and honorably discharged members of the U.S. military), was eligible for the services of a private firefighting crew. However, he was notified by USAA that when their crew checked in with the joint command for the Woolsey Fire, they were told by CAL FIRE that they would not be allowed to come into Malibu and, something to the effect that, if they disobeyed, they would never be allowed in during a fire from now on.

Krisel’s house burned down the day after the fire came through—a casualty of still-blowing embers. He feels strongly that if the private crew contracted by USAA had been allowed to come in, his house would’ve been saved—they would’ve kept an eye on the burning embers and hot spots and put them out before the house caught fire. County firefighters never showed up.

When The Malibu Times contacted Scott McLean, public information officer for CAL FIRE Woolsey Fire, to ask why, he said he wasn’t familiar with this particular incident, and would only be able to talk about their policy in general.

McLean verified that private fire companies must check in with the authorities at the joint command to show documentation from the insurance company and the address of the specific house.

“It’s a common thing—no big deal. We rarely turn them away,” McLean said. “But if there’s an evacuation order for the area the house is in, they cannot come in.” That’s the most obvious reason why the crew coming to Krisel’s house was turned away—the Malibu evacuation order must have already been in effect.

Our opinion:

Private engine crews can be helpful in keeping certain high-value structures from burning during a rapidly spreading wildfire when there are not enough government resources to protect every home. However, if they have no communication with the incident management organization which does not have any knowledge of their location, mission, or capabilities, it can throw a monkey wrench into an already chaotic situation.

CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other large organizations involved in wildfire suppression need to sit down with the insurance companies and agree on some standard operating procedures. The Incident Management Team needs to know what the private crews are doing and where, and the private crews need to have direct communication with the Team.

One day, when all firefighting resources are carrying equipment that makes it possible to track their location, this will become much easier — and safer. The federal and state agencies need to get off their butts and implement these tracking systems.