On Thursday afternoon on November 8, 2018, what came to be known as the Woolsey Fire ignited at approximately 2:24 p.m. near to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory located south of Simi Valley, in Ventura County, a property that was once the Rocketdyne/Atomics International rocket engine test and nuclear facility, but is now largely owned by Boeing.
By the time the Woolsey Fire was wrestled into near submission thirteen days later, it would kill three people, injure three firefighters, cause nearly 300 thousand people to evacuate, and incinerate 96,949 acres and 1,643 structures. By its end, the Woolsey fire burned more area of the Santa Monica Mountains than any other blaze in modern history. It is also the most destructive fire Los Angeles County has witnessed in the last 100 years.
In the first couple of hours of Woolsey’s existence, however, another wildfire called the Hill Fire, took center stage. The Hill Fire, which started around fourteen miles away from the Woolsey Fire’s ignition point, and twenty minutes earlier, was initially assessed by county firefighters to be the more dangerous of the two. But as the afternoon wore on, the Hill blaze entered an area that had burned previously during the 2013 fire season, meaning the fire was suddenly deprived of much of its best fuel and began to slow.
At the same time, Santa Ana winds began whipping the Woolsey Fire into the monster it would eventually become.
That same Thursday afternoon, Campus Kilpatrick, one of Los Angeles County Probation’s youth detention camps, had 41 teenage boys in residence, plus the requisite number of probation officers, supervisors and other staff needed to keep the camp running, and the kids safe and productively occupied.
Kilpatrick is unique among the county’s youth facilities. When its $53 million campus opened in July 2017, it was designed as an innovative pilot for a therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environment that would set a new standard for how the county treats the lawbreaking kids in its care. Yet, its location, nestled high in the Santa Monica Mountains above Point Dume and northwest of Malibu, while beautiful, is also a high fire area, surrounded by miles of dry chaparral, most of which hadn’t burned in at least 40 years, maybe longer.
Thus, for those who know fires, the question wasn’t if a large and dangerous blaze would one day threaten Kilpatrick, it was when.
By Friday morning, November 9, that question would be answered as Kilpatrick found itself directly in the path of the Woolsey Fire.
On Thursday afternoon, however, it was not yet clear to those on campus whether or not the place was really in any kind of real danger.
Kilpatrick staff members were certainly aware of the fire, and many had been tracking its progress on the TV in the break room when they had a few minutes.
Yet during the early hours of the fire’s life, Kilpatrick staff members had another issue that was grabbing for their attention. Bedbugs.
The pests turned up in the kids’ quarters the week before and were supposedly eradicated. But now they’d appeared in the staff’s quarters. Hoping to permanently obliterate the outbreak, staff members quickly trashed and replaced all potentially affected bedding, then confiscated the boys’ clothing, which was then subjected to aggressive washing at another location.
By early evening, however, the bed bug menace seemed generally to be handled and, although the fire was still at a distance, staff members began to wonder aloud to each other why there seemed to be no serious talk of evacuation from higher-ups in the department, at least none that had reached those on the campus.
Authority issues and dead vehicles
Tanesha Lockhart, a 25-year probation veteran, was one of the two supervisors on duty that Thursday night.
Lockhart, who had begun her career as a student volunteer, now supervised the day staff members who worked directly with the camp’s youth and she and another supervisor, Andrea Greene, were the highest-ranking Deputy Probation Officers—or DPOs—at the camp.
(A third supervisor, Silvia Khan, was off-site at the time getting the kids’ possibly infected clothes laundered.)
In any case, the problem on Thursday evening was that none of the three women had the authority to trigger an evacuation. They needed the go-ahead from one of the camp’s two directors.
One of the directors, a man named George Williams, had been on site earlier in the day, playing basketball with some of the kids, and dealing with bed-bug strategies. but he went home in the evening without any but the most off-hand instructions having to do with the fire. Furthermore, for Williams, or the other director, Katheryn Beigh, to give the go-ahead to evacuate, a former evacuation order was needed, which reportedly required the okay from someone still higher on the departmental food chain than they were.
Thus, on Thursday evening, there was no word from Director Williams, who was by then at home, so Lockhart and other staff members figured the message was wait and see.
Meanwhile, the day staff would soon be getting ready to leave for the night.
Like most of the DPOs, the Kilpatrick staff members worked a 3-day, 56-hour week. During those 56-hours, the day staffers were generally on duty from 6 a.m. when the camp’s teenage residents woke up, until 10 p.m. when the boys bedded down, and the night staff showed up, meaning the day staff could get some sleep. On a normal day, once the day staff was relieved, a small number went home, if they happened to live within reasonable driving distance. But most slept in on-campus dorms until they were on active duty again first thing in the morning.
On this particular Thursday, November 8, however, due to the freaking bed bug issue, any day staff who didn’t live nearby had been instructed to stay overnight at one of the county’s other juvenile camps, Camp David Gonzalez, which is located in Malibu Canyon, off of Las Virgenes Rd, making it about 11.2 miles and 20 minutes of driving time away from Kilpatrick.
Camp Gonzalez was, at the time, shuttered. The plan is to repurpose the youth camp as a voluntary residential re-entry and vocational training center for vulnerable young adults who had been homeless, on probation, involved with the foster care system, or some combination of the three. But in early November 2018, the camp’s renovation had yet to begin, and it was pretty much empty.
Before the daytime staff left Kilpatrick, however, Lockhart and Greene had a job for DPO Anthony Gonzalez, who had a Class B California Driver’s License, meaning he could drive such vehicles as the camp’s bus, and other multi-passenger vehicles. They asked him to check to see which of the facility’s vehicles would start, which required the help of the camp’s maintanance guy, Aaron Chang. And then, once they were up and running, Gonzalez and Supervisor Greene, were going to gas up enough of the vehicles to evacuate 41 kids.
Unfortunately, finding enough working vehicles turned out to be complicated. For one thing, the 30-passenger bus, which would hold the most kids, was a leftover from years past when Kilpatrick was famous for its sports program, and the bus was used to ferry the youth in residence to games.
On the evening of November 8, however, the bus declined to start and Chang had to jump it.
The camp’s two vans had to be jumped too. The first started successfully after the jump and, like the bus, appeared to hold the charge. Kilpatrick’s second van, which was slightly larger, refused start at all, despite a series of energetic attempts with jumper cables.
After Gonzales gave up on the second van, he and Greene drove the bus and the working van to the LA County Sheriff’s Lost Hills Station, which was around 20 minutes away. Lost Hills was the county facility where Kilpatrick vehicles were permitted to fuel up.
But this part of the project also had complications. To actually be able to fuel the bus and van, one needed a special code—which nobody at Kilpatrick seemed to have. Several phone calls later, somebody managed to persuade someone else who was high enough on the food chain to lend their code, or whatever it took.
Finally, Gonzales and Greene were indeed able to get the old bus and one van gassed up—which meant they almost had adequate transport for all the kids, plus the requisite staff chaperones needed for such a trip, should everyone have to get out of Kilpatrick in a hurry. But, unless they resorted to private cars, a practice that was frowned upon, they still didn’t have enough seats in the two vehicles to be able to get all the kids out.
“There should have been a log to make sure that all the vehicles are working and gassed up,” one DPO told WitnessLA well after the fact. “And someone should have been assigned to that job. It should have been protocol so that staff and minors would be safe in an emergency.”
Another DPO on duty during the fire agreed. “Since the facility opened, the vans were supposed to be on standby in case we needed them. But there was no one in charge of making sure that happened. If you’re trying to promote a new model,” the DPO said, “I would think that safety concerns like that one would be at the top of the list.”
It was getting late by the time Greene and Gonzalez returned with the now-fueled bus and van, and the night staff had begun to arrive. One night staffer, a woman who lived in Thousand Oaks, announced that she had just evacuated from her own home.
“You know,” she told her colleagues, “that fire’s a lot closer than you think.”
After helping with the fueling, Supervisor Greene went home, as her shift was over, and Lockhart told her day officers, that she would stay at Kilpatrick, and sleep on a chair in the camp’s conference room. That way, if the fire took a bad turn, the kids would see a familiar face when they woke up, instead of only the night staff who, while competent, mostly watched the campers sleep, thus rarely had much time to form relationships with the individual kids.
The “target hazard”
The night staff began getting nervous around 2:15 a.m. because the wind had clearly picked up. One of the night supervisors, Beatriz Ledezma, called the LA County Sheriff’s Station at Lost Hills to ask about the fire’s location. Around an hour later, another night supervisor Kim Northern, called again. The smell of the fire was stronger, and there was a lot more ash on the ground.
They thought it wise to wake Lockhart a litte before 4 a.m.
She immediately dialed Director Williams hoping he would hear the phone and pick up even if he’d been sleeping.
He didn’t pick up.
She was relieved when at 4:30 a.m. Los Angeles County Fire Captain Rick Mullen came by to check on the camp. Mullen was the head of the Station 72, the Decker Canyon fire station, and Kilpatrick was part of his jurisdiction.
“I have a big area, 20 square miles,” he explained to WitnessLA. “And that’s my one target hazard.”
A “target hazard,” according to Mullen, “is a building or establishment that has a significant life risk associated with it, such as a hotel, a hospital, and the like. Urban areas may have a whole bunch of them. But I have only one, which is the juvenile detention facility that used to be known as Camp Miller/Kilpatrick, now called Campus Kilpatrick.”
Mullen, a former Marine Corps Colonel who’s been fighting fires for 29 years, told Lockhart that at the moment, the roads were still open, but things would change rapidly, so they should be prepared.
Lockhart thanked Mullen. Then she managed to get through to one of her staff at Gonzalez, where the cell reception was spotty at best, and told him to spread the word that the day staff needed to come back to Kilpatrick as early as was humanly possible.
At the same time, the camp’s teachers and other began calling in wondering what to do. Night Supervisor Northern made an executive decision and told them not to come in, that things were too fluid, but to report to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar until further notice.
Meanwhile, in the other chaparral-covered canyons nearest to where Kilpatrick was located, residents had already started packing to leave before bedtime on Thursday.
In Topanga Canyon—which was two canyons east of Kilpatrick’s Kanan/Decker corridor—with Malibu Canyon in between—the word went out at 4:32 p.m. Thursday, via Topanga’s “Coalition for Emergency Preparedness” system (known locally as T-CEP) that the “Woolsey fire was moving fast,” and that residents would be wise to “get the large animals out now.”
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, voluntary evacuation orders were in place for Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village.
By midnight Thursday night, the Woolsey fire was being fanned by westerly winds that sometimes hit as high as 70 mph. By 3 a.m., the fire had burned 8,000 acres with zero containment.
Then at 5:14 a.m. Friday morning, shortly after Captain Mullen had stopped by the Kilpatrick, the fire jumped the 101 Freeway at Chesebro Road.
This meant that, unless the wind changed significantly, the fire would run to the sea.
“Everybody was watching the fire, but those of us on this side of the 101 felt if it jumps the 101 everything will be….different,” Mullen told WitnessLA much later.
Then once it jumped the 101 in the Chesebro area, he said, the main question was “whether it was going to go down Malibu Canyon, or the Kanan/Decker corridor” where Kilpatrick was located.
Of course, the fire did jump, and at first it appeared headed more in the direction of Malibu Canyon, in the direction of Camp Gonzalez. “But then took a right turn at Mulholland,” Mullen said, which meant it was now headed directly toward Kilpatrick on its path to the Pacific Ocean.
The fire had yet to hurdle the 101 when DPO Mike Dugan, one of the day staff who’d gone to Gonzales, began the drive back to Kilpatrick. Normally at that time of day in November, the sky above the sparsely populated canyon roads Dugan was driving resembled black silk, with a scattering sequins. But when he turned north from Las Virgenes on to Mulholland Drive, Dugan found himself looking at a sky that was as “bright as a Hollywood premiere,” he told colleagues. That was the moment he began to feel actively freaked, Dugan told friends much later, albiet using much more colorful language.
As he drove further on Mulholland, Dugan ran into a roadblock, where a firefighter told him he would have to turn around.
“There are kids on that hill,” Dugan told the firefighter who, after a grim pause, waved him through.
Around the same time, Anthony Gonzalez, the guy who’d gotten the bus and the van gassed up and ready, was also driving back to Kilpatrick, talking via cell phone with his friend and colleague, DPO Jesse Saldana, another 20-year probation veteran, who worked as a counselor for the kids in one of the camp’s two residential cottages.
Since it appeared they would arrive at Kilpatrick early Gonzalez and Saldana decided to stop for coffee at the McDonalds at Las Virgenes and Agoura Hills Rd, which was en route. Once at McDonald’s, they saw that the blaze had crossed to the south side of the 101 and was moving visibly seaward, This meant that the exit leading to Kilpatrick had been shut down, with more blocked roads quickly to come.
Gonzalez called Lockhart at Kilpatrick. “I don’t know what you’re seeing,” he said. “But the fire’s here. This is the real thing. There’s going to be a lot of staff late. We can’t get on the freeway anymore.”
The only way for the twosome to get to the camp now was to take Las Virgenes down to the Pacific Coast Hwy, then circle back up into the hills on Kanan Dume Rd., where they could then reach Encinal Canyon Rd. and head up the hill to Kilpatrick.
They arrived at the campus around 6 a.m. The fire had yet to arrive, but it was coming.
By this time, Lockhart was in constant communication with Director Williams, and texting with Captain Mullen.
“If common sense had kicked in,” grumbled a staff member later, “we would have evacuated the night before and then nobody would be having these conversations. With the proximity of the fires when they started, why did we not evacuate Thursday night? Why were we risking forty-something kids?”
Dorian May was one of the DPOs who went home to sleep. Although he lived in Long Beach, with the bed bug scare he thought it wise to toss his clothes, and he had no extras at the camp.
When he woke up Friday morning at 4 a.m. May immediately turned the TV, and saw that fire conditions had grown more perilous. He dressed as quickly as possible, then got on the road. But by 5:30 as he hit the Topanga Canyon Rd exit on US-101, he saw there were problems. The freeway exits were closed up ahead, which meant many of the roads that would lead him to Kilpatrick were likely now blocked too. So, like Gonzales, Saldana, and others, his only choice was to take Las Virgenes to the Pacific Coast Highway, and then take whatever route was still open back into the hills from there.
Many of the DPOs at the camp were on a Thursday/Friday/Saturday shift. But others, like Marlon Espiritu, were on a Friday/Saturday/Sunday shift.
Espiritu lived in Pomona but had been monitoring the news like everyone else and wondered if he would get a call telling him to stand down and not to report to work, that the camp was being evacuated.
When no such call came, he left his house at 4:30 a.m.
Espiritu had worked at probation for over two decades, and had been at Kilpatrick since its reopening, but he didn’t know the surrounding area as well as some of his colleagues. So when he hit the jam-up on the 101, he called Dorian May, who knew the area much better. The two worked together at the camp’s information center, and May easily talked him through the drive.
At 6:58 a.m., a mandatory evacuation was called for all of Malibu between Malibu Canyon Road and Ventura County line. This also meant all related areas south of the 101, to the ocean, according to the official announcement by the City of Malibu.
Meanwhile, Lockhart was still trying to get an answer from Williams, who called regularly to ask for updates.
Dorian May and Anthony Gonzalez were among those who picked up at least one of William’s calls. “What’s the situation up there?” Williams reportedly asked May. “How does it look?”
May explained to other staff later, that Williams then asked him to “go down the hill land talk to the police or a firefighter to see if we should evacuate.”
With the air growing progressively darker and more uncomfortably smoked-filled, many found the request surprisingly out-of-touch.
Yet, for those who either answered or overheard the calls, the message from higher-ups was nevertheless consistent: stay put until you are told to leave.
Lockhart, meanwhile, called or texted Fire Captain Mullen, or someone at his station, approximately once every fifteen minutes to get her own updates on the status of the fire, which she would relay to Williams, who presumably passed the information up the line.
She told him when Kilpatrick was under voluntary evacuation, as she and the staff watched ashes drifting on to campus grounds like huge numbers of some strange genus of grey-white butterfly.
Still, Williams told her to send one of her staff members down to the road closure to find out how much time they had. Meanwhile, the fire moved ever closer.
There was, however, one piece of truly good news. Lockhart believed the problem of not having enough working vehicles was solved. A van from the department’s transportation bureau was scheduled for a routine pick up of a Kilpatrick youth who had to go to court.
Obviously, no one was going to any court that day, but it was Lockhart’s understanding that the van was still coming, that is if the driver could get past the roadblocks—and the fire.
As Lockhart and others waited for news on the transportation van, Williams’ last communication to the supervisor was to again send a staff member to the nearest road closure. Lockhart again sent a DPO, who talked to Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies who were guarding one of the road closures. The deputies were surprised by the question. They didn’t know anyone was still at Kilpatrick, they said. They’d assumed everyone had already gone. As it happens, no one at Kilpatrick got that message until days later, because, after talking to the deputies, the unnerved staff member got in her vehicle and drove home.
Then at approximately 7:40 a.m. all forms of communication between the camp and the outside world went down—cell phones, landlines, internet, everything.
This was a scary development in that it meant that the staff was suddenly isolated in that it could no longer call or text Captain Mullen or any other fire department contacts.
The only upside was the fact that, in a single moment, the whole notion of permission was rendered moot.
The staff member who likely understood the fire danger the best was Bruce Bates, a Deputy Probation Officer who has worked for the department for almost 20 years, and the county’s Department of Child and Family Services for two years before that. He was also part of the implementation team that had worked on the creation of the therapeutic protocol for Kilpatrick.
Bates lived in Malibu, in the hills above Zuma Beach, so he was one of those who could go home at night. This also meant that the fire was front and center on his personal radar from the moment it ignited. Thus, when he got home at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday night he began pulling out all the family photos, and any other can’t-bear-to-lose-them items that he knew his family would want to evacuate, which meant everybody’s computers and his own laptop, were placed near the front door, ready to be loaded into one of the family’s cars.
When he woke up sometime after 4 a.m. on Friday morning and checked conditions, Bates realized he needed to get his wife, kids, and his mother packed and on the road to his sister’s house in Oxnard before he could go to work.
When Bates arrived at Kilpatrick at 5:40 or 6 a.m. and told Lockhart and others that, whatever the directors were saying, evacuation was a foregone conclusion.
“We thought he had a special app on his phone,” a staff member said later. “because he knew exactly where that fire was going.”
Weirdly, Bates’ clarity was a relief to the rest of the staff who were starving for definitive information of any kind after what they viewed as hours of dithering by higher-ups.
Lockhart and the rest took him at his word. While waiting for the rest of the day staff to manage to get in on the ever-more compromised roads, they allowed the kids to sleep slightly later than usual, while.
Once the staff—which now included Supervisor Kahn who had arrived around 7:10 a.m.—did rouse the youth, they decided it was wise to feed them cold cereal in the cottages, rather than take the time to move them to the brightly painted dining hall. After that, the boys got dressed in their newly washed clothes, gathered a few possessions, and were prepared to be loaded–one side of each of the two cottages at a time—in the various vehicles, once they got the go-ahead.
When the phones went down without the hoped-for go-ahead, the supervisors determined that Bates would drive one of the vehicles, as he also had the relevant Class B driver’s license, and Gonzalez would drive the other. There was a brief, panicky kerfuffle about not being able to find the keys to the big bus, so Bates got the keys to the van that was working, while Gonzales managed to locate the wayward bus keys—which turned out to be exactly where they were supposed to be, in the key box.
Bates and others were walking around giving a last-minute check to the van and the bus, when a sheriff’s deputy showed up, stopping only long enough to deliver a quick message.
“You’ve got ten minutes to get out of here,” he told Bates. “Otherwise you can’t leave.”
Looking uncharacteristically rattled, Bates relayed the message, and Khan asked DPO Celina Durazo-Kent to go with him, along with nine of the kids out of the first cottage.
Around that same time, the scheduled transportation van showed up, driven by DPO Will Robinson, who had miraculously managed to get around various roadblocks and increasingly dangerous road conditions.
Staff members quickly shepherded the remaining ten kids from the first cottage into the transportation bureau van—known ever after as the “trans van.”
That left the 22 kids in cottage number two, Aspen, who could all fit comfortably on the big bus, along with a cluster of staff members. Lockhart, Kim Northern, one of the night staff, and a third staff member, had spent the early morning making sure that each of the kids’ “behavior” files, and other important paperwork, were also packed and ready to go.
Now that everyone appeared to be moving toward departure, Bates and Durazo-Kent got on the road before their kids got too scared and antsy.
The staff was just finishing loading the trans van when Captain Mullen and two firefighters arrived in a large fire engine.
He and Lockhart had been in regular contact until the phones went down. Then Mullen, who was also at that time the mayor of Malibu, got tied up for a while dispatching a helicopter to try to pick up a family, plus two large dogs, who were dangerously trapped at the eastern end of his district at Castro Peak, which also held a series of commercial two-way radio towers . After what would turn out to be a hazardous and widely-televised air rescue, a worried Mullen drove straight to Kilpatrick.
He arrived at about 8:00 a.m. just after Bates and Durazo-Kent’s van had left, and as the trans van, plus a short convoy of private vehicles, were lined up in preparation to follow the first van.
But time had run out. “You need to leave right now,” staff members remember Mullen told those in the convoy. Then he went to find Lockhart.
Trans driver Robinson needed no further prodding, and exited the parking lot with a slightly safer version of a scene out of “The Fast & the Furious,” according to one staff member.
DPO Ron Smith, followed Robinson in his own car.
Mike Dugan, and DPO Nidia Rizo also intended to be part of the convoy. But as Rizo gazed at the flames that now looked as high as skyscrapers decorating the hill right behind the campus buildings, she seemed to freeze.
“We’re all gonna die,” she told Dugan, or words to that effect.
“You’re right,” Dugan said, “but not today,” and told Rizo they were both going to get in their cars, and caravan down the hill.
Rizo eventually followed Dugan’s directive, and both of the DPOs headed the direction they saw the vans had taken, assuming that the white bus with the rest of the kids and staff would follow.
But that was not the case.
As the remaining staff members were engaged in what they hoped would be a calm and orderly process of loading the remaining 22 kids from both sides of Aspen cottage on the bus, Mullen took Lockhart aside and broke the bad news.
It was too late to leave driving that bus, he told her. The fire was by then close, having crossed Kanan Dume Rd. And it was moving very fast. It was just no longer safe to try to leave with all the kids, Mullen said. They had run out of time. They needed to “shelter in place.” He and his two firefighters and the truck would stay with them for the duration.
“It will be okay, Mullen said.
The fire captain was a consummate pro, and his calm was steadying, the staff explained later, but for many his assurances could not help but feel slight when compared to the reality they now realized they were facing.
The staff members stared at the clouds of fire-painted smoke that billowed above the campus like an approaching mob of malign ghosts.
They understood the captain’s point. If they tried to leave with the bus, all they’d need was one downed tree across the increasingly fire-draped roads to produce a true, life-altering disaster.
The kids had just been loaded inside the bus and no one wanted to alarm them. “We realized we had to stay, and we had to keep it together for the kids,” one officer told us.
“That’s what we had to do. There wasn’t a choice anymore.”
To be continued… Look for “Facing the Inferno, Part 2,” on August 2!
Editor’s note: How this series was researched
To report this story, WitnessLA talked to 14 members of LA County Probation who went through some portion of the Woolsey Fire either at Campus Kilpatrick, or as one of those who helped with the evacuation.
Yet, it is important to note that, although we mention quite a few names in this narrative and describe the actions or remarks of various staff members, it does not necessarily mean we talked to those staff members directly.
We conducted more than 25 hours of interviews to write this story. And we reviewed many pages of written accounts of the fire, and about its effect.
We also interviewed a significant list of LA County Probation sources who did not go through the Woolsey Fire, but who have given us important information about the experiences of those who were at Kilpatrick for some or all of the evacuation period, and about the circumstances surrounding the evacuation.
In addition, we interviewed three LA County Fire captains with knowledge of the Woolsey Fire and the Kilpatrick evacuation, plus civilian sources who are not county employees but who had direct experience with the fire, its timeline, and the sequence of events that took place as the Woolsey Fire raged through the Santa Monica Mountains in November 2018.
If we got anything wrong, please let us know.
Note: “Facing the Inferno: Campus Kilpatrick & the Woolsey Fire, Part 1,” was updated with additional details, and some errors corrected on: July 17, 2019, July 18, 2019, July 19, 2019, July 20, 2019, and July 30, 2019