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Woolsey Fire: What Happens Next For Malibu Evacuees?

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The iron frame of an entranceway is all that remains standing from a home burnt down in the Woolsey Fire on Filaree Heights Road in Malibu, California on November 13, 2018 as residents remain under evacuation. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Emily Dugdale and Brian Frank

Malibu residents displaced by the Woolsey Fire made their frustration known Tuesday night at a community meeting marked by angry outbursts, tears and frustration.

A cadre of officials from the city, county and state updated residents on the situation on the ground as one of the largest fires on record in Los Angeles County burned into its sixth night. The fire has killed two people and razed or damaged hundreds of buildings.

Many residents who were evacuated have not been allowed back and don't know whether their homes still stand.

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At one point, a person in the crowd could be heard yelling, "Could we have some information?"

Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman stopped several times to appeal for patience.

"Could we stop yelling and come together as a community?" she said.

Among the evacuees' most urgent questions: How soon can they return? The answer they heard repeatedly: As soon as it's safe.

Active hotspots and flareups still threaten the area, along with downed power lines, debris and other hazards.

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"And until it's safe to go there, you're not going to be allowed back," said Malibu Councilman Skylar Peak.

The scale of the destruction was overwhelming to people like Kim Devitt.

"To see this happen to so many people that I love and care about, I don't even know how to describe it. It's heart-wrenching," Devitt said.

But the evening was also marked by a feeling of community bonding and heartfelt gratitude. City Councilman Jefferson Wagner, who had been hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke inhalation while attempting to protect his home, sent a message of thanks through his daughter.

"He wanted me to tell you that he has been so moved by the stories of our brave neighbors coming together to fight the fire and to support each other in these devastating times," Ava Wagner said. "We are grateful to live in such a strong community where so many are working selflessly and tirelessly to help one another."

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Wagner's lungs, kidneys, airway and eyes were all badly damaged, but he has been released from the hospital and is expected to recover, his daughter said.

"We will heal and rebuild, and your city council will do everything in their power to work alongside state and federal officials to get you guys necessary longterm assistance," Wagner said through his daughter.

Officials will be setting up a mobile assistance center to connect displaced residents with local agencies and resources.

For now, here's what we know.

Why can't I return yet?

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The fire still needs to be stopped, utilities need to be restored and debris cleanup still needs to happen to make the area safe, officials said.

County and city agencies are working together on debris removal, but some of that debris is toxic and needs to be removed according to strict guidelines, according to Jeff Reeb with the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management.

People will be allowed back as it's deemed safe, and the process will happen incrementally to avoid a rush, said L.A. County Sheriff Chief John Benedict.

"Quite frankly, you're pissed off and I get it, but we're doing everything that we can to make sure that we do this safely," Benedict said.

What's being done to protect homes and businesses from looting?

Officials said sheriff's deputies are patrolling the neighborhoods. They have not received any reports of looting in Malibu.

Why can't we get information on which homes have burned?

Teams are on the ground doing damage assessment on foot, property by property, and that process is difficult and time-consuming, Feldman said.

"So I beg you, please be patient with us, because the last thing I want to do is look at one of you and say, 'Your house burnt down,' and be wrong," Feldman said.

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An aerial view of devastation in one neighborhood caused by the Woolsey Fire (Courtesy L.A. County Sheriff's Department via Twitter)

When will power be restored?

Nearly 10,000 customers were without power Tuesday night, and the outage could last for many days for some residents, according to Phil Herrington with SoCal Edison.

Herrington said crews were working to restore the main substation first and then working outward from there.

Edison has 80 crews working on restoration efforts and 20 crews doing damage assessment, which has been completed for about half of Malibu.

It's a big job. About 600 distribution poles need to be replaced, and about 100 have been installed so far, Herrington said.

You can check the Edison outage map here.

When will it be safe to drink the water?

A boil water notice has been issued for the Encinal Canyon area, the Point Dume area between Pacific Coast Highway and the northern boundary of Malibu, and the area north of Malibu High School.

When a distribution system loses pressure as it did during the Woolsey Fire, dangerous bacteria can enter the water.

The order is expected to be lifted before residents return, said Dave Rydman, senior civil engineer with L.A. County Public Works.

Still, some residents stayed behind. For anyone in one of the affected areas, boil your water for at least one minute or drink bottled water until the order is lifted.

"That's important until the water is cleared, especially if your water doesn't look right," said Dr. Jan King with the L.A. County Public Health Department.

For the latest updates, check LACwaterworks.org.

When will cell service be restored?

Cell service already seems to be working on the east end of Malibu, but the west end is still spotty to nonexistent, according to Feldman.

AT&T and Verizon are working to repair cell towers and installing temporary sites on trucks placed at strategic locations, Feldman said.

"By the time people are back in their neighborhoods, you will have cell service - hopefully better than we had before," she said.

What's being done to prepare for mudslides?

Teams will be sent out to assess the fire boundary and any adjacent homes or communities that could be vulnerable, but officials warned there isn't much time before the rainy season to complete that work, and there isn't much they can do to prevent devastating mudflows like those seen in Montecito earlier this year.

"I don't want you to think that we're going to stop floods if we get rain," said Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter. "Floods will occur, and it will depend on what kind of rain comes, how fast it comes, how much comes, and where it comes."

Just as in Montecito, the order will be to evacuate, Porter said. What the teams will assess is the areas that are most at risk.Those will be areas where evacuation orders will come.

Still, officials have provided tips for residents to help prepare and protect their homes as best they can. You can read that guide here.

Feldman also pointed out the city of Malibu will not enforce its ban on plastics, so plastic sandbags can be used to help fortify homes. Residents will be able to pick up sandbags at local fire stations.

Reeb also urged residents to enroll in Alert L.A. County. Creating a profile will allow the county to send updates by email or text message.

How soon can students return to school, and what's being done to help high school seniors with college applications?

All schools in the Malibu school district are closed until it is deemed safe to return. Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said he hoped they would reopen by November 26, but that could change.

Many of the district's staff and students have been displaced.

Many students were in the middle of studying for Advanced Placement testing and applying to go to college.

Drati said the district is working with officials from the University of California and the California State University systems as well as private schools to extend deadlines. He said the UC system has already granted that request.

How do I apply for assistance?

Officials urged residents to file damage claims. They listed several resources to help you get started:

  • FEMA: Call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362)
  • Visit the website wildfirerecovery.org
  • In L.A. County, call 2-1-1 to file a property damage claim

When will trash be picked up?

Feldman said she will ensure trash is being picked up regularly, especially in those areas that have recently reopened. You can find more information about city services at the city's website.

How can I help?

The Malibu Boys and Girls Club is leading efforts to collect donations, Feldman said.

You can get more details on their website.


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