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LA County Is Studying The Woolsey Fire To Prepare For The Next Big Emergency

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Nearly two months after the massive Woolsey Fire burned almost 97,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains and communities including Malibu, Calabasas and Agoura Hills, recovery efforts are slow going.

That's due to the sheer magnitude of the fire's impact, according to Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who said over 400 homes must be evaluated and cleared away of toxic materials left behind by the blaze.

As many work to clean up and rebuild, the city of Malibu and L.A. County are launching investigations into the cause of the fire and how local emergency officials responded to the crisis. The goal is to come away from this devastating fire with "better communication, better preparation, better evacuation measures," Kuehl said in an interview with KPCC's Take Two.

Malibu City Councilman Rick Mullen has been hearing from Woolsey Fire victims as their representative and as a captain with the L.A. County Fire Department. He expressed gratitude to the county for opening two recovery centers quickly and keeping them running.

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"Putting all those different agencies in one place and for everyone that's gone in there, they've been super helpful," he said.

Devastating wildfires are the new normal for Southern California and that reality is motivating both Malibu and L.A. County to take a deeper look at the Woolsey Fire. The Board of Supervisors and Malibu city council each voted in favor of their reviews last month.

RELATED STORY: Lost Your Home In The Woolsey Fire? Beware Of Rent Gouging

For L.A. County, Kuehl said the first phase, already underway is to determine where the fire started and how it spread. But the main goal is to review how residents were notified, evacuated and later repopulated.

Kuehl said the county will put together a task force to explore improvements to wildfire response, with representatives from each city affected by the Woolsey Fire, as well as unincorporated areas, and local and state emergency officials. County leaders also plan to hire consultants "to look at the allocation of resources and how the instantaneous responses went half-hour by half-hour," she said.

Doctor Steve Popkow works to save items at his property while the Woolsey Fire burns in his backyard off of Stokes Canyon Road on Nov. 9, 2018. (Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image)

One dilemma Kuehl used as an example: what if a fire knocks out cell service and residents can't receive mobile alerts telling them to evacuate?

"We may even need to go back to the air raid siren," she said.

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The first step after the task force is official will be a series of public hearings for residents to share their experiences during the fire. A separate group of hearings is planned to focus on repopulation efforts.

"We want to really understand the experience of the constituents... so we can be prepared when the next disaster happens," Kuehl said.

In Malibu specifically, Councilman Mullen says he's been hearing the same set of complaints from residents regarding evacuations during the Woolsey Fire.

"In particular, people are very concerned about the traffic jam on PCH," he said. "How can we make that move much smoother?"

Other issues commonly raised by residents were how fire department resources are allocated and why repopulation efforts took so long.

"Those three areas really have to with the sheriff's department, the fire department and our ability to work closely with them," Mullen said. "As we go forward as a city, we want to make sure we can communicate and support their efforts."

The city will also explore ways to improve neighborhood readiness, brush clearance and look at getting more community members trained for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program.

"I want to do a really deep dive into preparation, notification (and) evacuation," Kuehl said. "It's all about the future. It's all about the next fire."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

Ryan Fonseca contributed to this story.

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