A fire is born
On Thursday afternoon, November 8, 2018, what came to be known as the Woolsey Fire ignited at approximately 2:24 p.m., south of Simi Valley, California, on a 2,850-acre property that once housed 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 had killed three people, caused nearly 300,000 people to evacuate, incinerated 96,949 acres and 1,643 structures, and had become the most destructive fire in Los Angeles County history.
The afternoon the fire began, 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 kids safe and productively occupied, and to keep the camp running.
Kilpatrick, which opened in July 2017, is unique among the county’s youth facilities with its $53 million campus designed as an innovative pilot for a therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environment that it was hoped would set a new standard for how the county treats the law-breaking kids in its care.
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 that had not burned in 40 years, or likely longer.
On Friday morning, Kilpatrick with its fuel-rich surroundings found itself directly in the path of the inferno that was the Woolsey Fire.
(Note: If you’ve not yet read “Facing the Inferno: Part 1,” you can find it here.)
Attempting to leave – a brief recap
When we last left our story about Kilpatrick and the Woolsey Fire, it was slightly after 8:00 a.m., on Friday, the fire’s second day.[If you’ve not yet read Facing the Inferno Part 1, we recommend reading it first.]
Los Angeles County Fire Captain Rick Mullen had just arrived at the camp with a fire truck and two firefighters.
Mullen is the captain of the Decker Canyon fire station, also known as Station 72. He is also a 29-year veteran firefighter, a former Colonel in the Marines, and was at the time the mayor of Malibu. Kilpatrick was part of his roughly 20-mile-square district.
As a consequence, three and a half hours before this 8 a.m visit, Mullen had stopped by the camp at around 4:30 a.m. to see how things were going. The Woolsey Fire hadn’t yet crossed US-101. But although firefighters had worked hard to prevent the crossing, they were losing the battle.
Mullen talked with one of the camp’s two supervisors, SDPO Tanesha Lockhart. He told her that the roads were still pretty clear, but that conditions were going to change.
Indeed, things changed very shortly after their conversation when at 5:14 a.m., the Woolsey Fire succeeding in jumping the 101 Freeway at Chesebro Road.
The moment was memorialized on camera by CBS 2 Los Angeles, where anchors and viewers both saw the fiery leap in real-time.
“Oh, no!” the two CBS women said in unison. Their dismay was justified.
Experience dictated that driven by the warm, dry, fast-moving Santa Ana’s, which traditionally descend each fall from the high desert into the Southern California Basin, once a blaze of the kind the Woolsey Fire was shaping up to be crossed US-101, it would not stop until it hits the Pacific Ocean.
What route the fire could choose on its run to the sea was, as yet, unknown. Would it go via Malibu Canyon, or the Kanan/Decker corridor where Kilpatrick was located? At first, the fire seemed to be headed toward Malibu.
“But then it took a right turn at Mulholland,” Mullen said later. This meant the blaze had chosen Kanan/Decker, which would lead it overland in the direction of Campus Kilpatrick.
Shortly after Mullen left the camp after his early morning visit, Lockhart began exchanging calls with her boss, director George Williams, trying to get approval to evacuate, which required an official evacuation order. Inexplicably Williams and whoever was above him whose permission he required, would not give the go-ahead for the staff to take the kids and leave.
Instead, probation leadership continued to ask for additional information about the proximity of this unusually volatile fire that was growing rapidly and, on Friday morning, being pushed by winds that were gusting between 55 and 70 mph.
In between repeated attempts to check the fire’s location for Williams, Lockhart began directing staff members to wake-up the kids, who had been allowed to sleep late in the two, brightly painted cottage-style dorms, Maple cottage and Aspen cottage. Then staff got them dressed, fed them with cold cereal for the sake of speed and convenience, asked each of the boys grab a small bag filled with personal items, and otherwise prepared the teenagers to board one of the camp’s larger vehicles.
The idea was that, when the higher-ups finally gave the go-ahead, everybody would be ready.
First Lockhart worked mostly with the night staff, whom she asked to stay on past the end of their normal shifts. The day staff, many of whom (as readers may remember from Part 1) had spent the previous night a half-hour away at Camp David Gonzales due to a bed bug outbreak. Now they were struggling to get back to Kilpatrick, delayed by a labyrinthine pattern of fire-related road closures.
SDPO Silvia Khan, the camp’s second on-duty supervisor, finally made it back around 7:10 a.m., shepherding with her a group of Deputy Probation Officers who had driven caravan-style using one of the now-established round-about routes back from Gonzales. Once back on campus, Khan took over much of the kid-feeding and packing.
But still, the evacuation order never materialized.
At around 7:40 a.m., all phone, cell, and WiFi communication went down, thus abruptly ending the possiblity of receiving any orders to evacuate.
In response, the supervisors began doing what they’d wanted to do all morning They finished getting the kids ready, then brought them out, one half of each cottage at a time, and loaded them into vehicles in an orderly sequence in preparation to leave the campus. Meanwhile the ash that had been falling everywhere on the campus all morning, increased in intensity.
It had been decided previously that DPO Bruce Bates would drive one of two camp vehicles that had been gassed up the night before, and DPO Anthony Gonzalez would drive the other since both men had the all-important Class B driver’s licenses that allowed them to drive a van or a bus. Around 7:30 a.m. or so, there had been a brief, panicky search for the keys to the white 30-passenger bus, which Bates originally thought he’d take so as to get the maximum amount of kids out right away. But, not wishing to wait, while others looked for the bus keys, he grabbed the keys to the van, which could hold at least nine of the boys, and went out to prep the vehicle with DPO Mike Dugan, who had been the first of the day staff to make it back to campus that morning.
Five minutes or so later, someone got Gonzalez, who’d driven the white bus last. Gonzalez quickly managed to locate the wayward bus keys, which turned up exactly where they were supposed to be.
Keys notwithstanding, the two vehicles together were not big enough to fit all 41 kids, plus two or three staff members needed in each to chaperone. Earlier Lockhart had been on the phone with the probation department’s transportation bureau trying to solve the problem.
She knew that “trans,” as the bureau was called for short, had been scheduled to send another van to Kilpatrick for a routine pick up of one of the camp’s youth in order to take him to court, or some similar appointment.
Obviously, no one was going to court on this day, but Lockhart hoped that the van had not been canceled, but would still show up at Kilpatrick, that is if the driver could get past the worsening roadblocks. And the fire.
Happily, the trans van wasn’t canceled and did show up, with DPO Will Robinson at the wheel. Khan and staff quickly loaded this second van with ten kids from the second side of Maple cottage.
Next, the whole of Aspen cottage was loaded on the white bus.
The precious “behavior files” for each of the kids, had already been packed into wooden milk crates early that morning. Medical files and other documents relating to the camp’s teenage residents were electronic, but for some reason the behavior files were not, so had to be manually evacuated.
The milk crates were now loaded into DPO Cynthia Lavarreda’s personal vehicle.
This meant that everybody was pretty much ready to go.
At around that same time, Captain Mullen had finished dealing with an emergency situation elsewhere in his district involving a family trapped on Castro Peak. After resolving that problem safely, and addressing a couple of others, he and two of his firefighters found themselves at the intersection of Latigo Canyon Rd. and Kanan Dume Rd. where they could see the fire was beginning to cross Kanan.
This meant it was only a couple of miles from Campus Kilpatrick and its now-vacant sister facility, Camp Miller.
“I suddenly realized I didn’t get a resolution to my satisfaction as to what happened with the evacuation of Kilpatrick,” he said much later. So he figured it would be wise to check on the camp.
Earlier, while there was still cell service, Mullen had been texting back and forth with supervisor Lockhart, while probation management continued to dither about issuing an evacuation order. Then, all once all the phones went down and, although some critical radio transmitters on Castro Peak had stayed up, meaning that the first responders in the area could still talk to each other, civilians in the fire-threatened canyons were completely cut off.
Meanwhile, CalFire had tweeted mandatory evacuation orders for much of Malibu at about 7:30 a.m. And earlier Friday morning word went out that Pierce College—the place that was commonly used for large animal evacuations by Malibu, Topanga, and surrounding communities—was already full before the sun was up.
So, probably Kilpatrick’s staff had gotten permission to leave.
But they hadn’t.
As a consequence, when Mullen and his red Station 72 fire truck approached the camp’s parking lot at approximately 8:00 a.m., the trans van and a bunch of staff members, each in their private vehicles, were lined up convoy style. The white bus too had kids on board and appeared nearly ready to leave.
A few minutes before Mullen arrived, Bruce Bates, with DPO Celina Durazo-Kent as his co-pilot, had already taken off in their van carrying nine of the camps 41 boys.
As Mullen turned in, the trans van, followed by a line of staff cars, also began screeching out of the parking lot, one after the other.
That left the 22 kids from Aspen cottage who were getting settled on the white bus with Gonzalez and another staff member or two, while the rest of the staff were moving toward making their own exits.
Given the speed the fire was now moving, the bus with the 22 kids worried Mullen a lot. He got out of the fire truck, took Lockhart aside and explained that they shouldn’t leave. It was too late. The fire was much too close.
He believed they could instead safely “shelter in place,” he said, if they stayed at Kilpatrick. Plus, he and his two fellow firefighters would stay with them.
Lockhart listened hard to Mullen’s proposal. It was only when he told her that he would stay too, that she agreed to his shelter-in-place scheme.
“If he hadn’t stayed … I don’t know what we would have done,” she said later.
She gathered the staff and explained the new plan.
Mullen instructed everyone to bring the bus carrying the kids, and all the staff’s personal vehicles inside the Kilpatrick complex, telling them to park on the central grassy area that was surrounded by the camp’s various buildings. That’s where they would be the safest, he said.
He and his two firefighters, Matt Montoya, and Steve Reigel (who was also an engineer), plus their truck would stay the outside the gates, Mullen said. That way they could watch the fire’s movements and do what they could to tame and deflect it as it roared toward the camp.
Then once the fire had passed by, everyone would be able to head down the mountain.
Despite Mullen’s calm demeanor, this was an extremely scary proposition. Mullen was surprised at how well the staff took the information.
“I’m sure they weren’t happy. But nobody visibly lost their cool or panicked.”
Although the staff didn’t know this at the time, as bad as things were, the fact that Mullen showed up at Kilpatrick when he did was an extremely lucky break. With fire resources pulled in too many directions, he was the only command level person in the immediate area, and likely the only person within miles with Kilpatrick prominently on his radar. And earlier in the morning, sheriffs deputies stationed at a nearby roadblock told a staff member they’d assumed everyone on campus had already evacuated.
Furthermore, there was another piece of serendipitous luck that persuaded Mullen that the staff and the kids would do okay staying put until the fire passed. A few weeks after Kilpatrick’s gala opening in July 2017, which meant a little over a year before the Woolsey Fire, two of the camp’s DPOs came to see Mullen at the Decker Canyon Fire Station to ask for advice about what to do in the event of a big fire.
Mullen had been to Kilpatrick several times, but he’d never done a critical analysis of the place. So, when the two guys showed up, he did a mental walk-through of the campus as he contemplated what worthwhile advice he could give the two staffers other than his usual list.
In doing so, Mullen had a sort of epiphany. On one hand, Kilpatrick’s location presented a gigantic danger in a fire since it was surrounded by masses of thick brush in every direction one looked.
But the camp also one distinct advantage, he believed.
“Topographically,” he explained, “the building complex is situated in a relatively low spot, which is a good thing” if a bad fire is blazing your direction. Plus the buildings themselves were built with “the right material,” he told the two staff members back then, “and there’s always good clearance” around the place. This meant the grassy clearing at the center of the facilities’ structures could be a safe place to weather a big fire.
Of course, if the Kilpatrick staff had any kind of warning, “then obviously get the kids out,” and do it early, he said.
But if the camp was ever in “an in extremis situation,” if a big fire was on the doorstep “and you have very few options,” then he believed the staff and the kids could “shelter in place,” if worse absolutely came to worse.
So when the in extremis situation actually came to pass on Friday morning, November 9, 2018, and the “fire from hell was at coming down the road,” he said, sheltering in place was the best thing he was able to offer.
“But that was only because, a year ago, those guys got my wheels turning.”
Otherwise, it could have been, “Oh, my God, we’ve got to hit the road!”
And with 22 kids, more than a dozen staff, and a 30-person bus—that late in the game it was a perilous proposition.
That same Friday, Mullen said, the Woolsey Fire killed two people “who were caught in their car at the wrong time when the fire came through.”
Fire personnel did, in fact, find the bodies of a middle-aged man and his elderly mother on that Friday. They were reportedly “severely burned” in their car while coming down a long driveway at the 33000-block of Mulholland Hwy—six minutes away from Kilpatrick.
“And that could have happened to…..” Mullen paused. “well…a lot of other people.”
Buckets, masks, and hoses
Once the bus and private cars were moved, DPO Gonzalez and DPO Jesse Saldana remained on the bus with the kids, with Lockhart and other staff rotating in occasionally to help, or just to see how the 22 teenagers were doing. Gonzalez played music for them on his cell phone, and both men used other activities and strategies to keep the kids calm and occupied, and to draw their attention away from what was occurring outside the bus windows.
At the same time, most of the other staff members began busying themselves finding ways to extinguish the increasing number of spot fires caused by the embers that now were showering the buildings and the grounds with unsettling intensity.
At first, it looked like the staff’s efforts to address the ember fire problem would be severely hampered by the fact that neither of the supervisors had a key to the warehouse that contained garden hoses and other needed items.
“Management allows supervisors to be in charge of the lives of more than 40 kids, but, at Kilpatrick, they don’t trust them with the key to the warehouse where the toilet paper is stored,” said one DPO.
As it happened, however, Aaron Chang, the camp’s maintenance person, had managed to make his way through the roadblocks to the camp Friday morning (although his boss, the facility’s manager had not). And, miraculously Chang had the required keys.
Chang, who emigrated from Cambodia as a child with his family, is a no-nonsense person with a multiplicity of skills. He opened the warehouse and began pulling out water hoses, buckets, and towels that could be soaked to cover faces, if needed. He also brought out a bunch of paper masks that were usually used for wall painting and similar activities. While they weren’t a perfect shield against the smoke and ash that continued to get worse, the paper masks were better than having no masks at all.
“Chang knew where all the hose bibs were on the grounds,” said one staff member. “He also knew where all the fire extinguishers were.”
Of course, every staff member knew where some of the fire extinguishers were located, depending on where they worked in the camp. But Chang knew where all of them were and, with a little assistance, gathered them quickly.
Once the hoses were hooked up, big buckets were filled with water, and the fire extinguishers were collected and laid out neatly on the ground where they could be grabbed easily, the staff members went to work.
Chang advised the DPOs not to go alone into or around any structures, but to go in twosomes, in order to keep each other safe, “in case anything happens.”
Everybody was scared, Chang said later, “but instead of running away from the fire, they ran toward it to put out all the small fires and to keep our camp from burning.”
For everyone, it seemed, doing something was way better than doing nothing.
While the staff members who had remained at Kilpatrick were hunting spot fires, those in the two recently departed vans were not having an easy time of it.
Bruce Bates, whose van left first, arguably knew this area of the Santa Monicas better than anybody else on staff, mainly because he and his family lived fifteen or so minutes away from Kilpatrick in the hills above Zuma Beach.
“Trust me, I know where I’m going,” he’d said to co-pilot Durazo-Kent, as they peeled out of the Kilpatrick parking lot. While this was true in theory, at first Bates wasn’t absolutely sure which of the various routes he knew was now the best way to avoid the approaching fire.
His instincts were to take what he referred to as the back way, driving Encinal Canyon Rd. all the way down to the Pacific Coast Highway.
But many of the day staff had taken Kanan Dume Road up from PCH earlier that morning when they were trying to get back from Camp Gonzales. They told him that, given what they’d seen an hour or so before, Kanan was likely still open.
Reluctantly, Bates bought the argument and took Encinal toward Kanan, turned right—and ran smack into everything he hoped to avoid
“It was a firestorm,” he would tell colleagues later.
Bates hung a speedy U-turn and drove back the way he’d come, his foot hard on the accelerator.
As he, Durazo-Kent, and their nine charges whizzed past Kilpatrick in the direction of what they hoped would be a less hazardous route, Durazo-Kent attempted to radio Lockhart, Kahn or anybody else who might be listening using one of the two-way radios that the supervisors and various staff had been using to communicate with each other once the phones went down.
“Don’t take Kanan!” Durazo-Kent shouted into the radio mic, or words to that effect, having no idea if anyone would hear anything of what she said.
The rest of the drive down Encinal Canyon Rd. to the coast was relatively uneventful.
Once Bates and Durazo-Kent got to PCH, however, there were new complications.
The route down the coast toward Santa Monica was jammed with other evacuators to the point of parking lot status. But traveling up the coast was a non-starter because the sheriff’s department had set up roadblocks and wasn’t letting anybody through except for first responders.
Meanwhile, the other issue was the kids, a couple of whom were beginning to act up. When the van left Kilpatrick, the boys were understandably nervous, but also appropriately compliant. Now, one of the kids suddenly began expressing his anxiety by attempting repeatedly to kick out a van window.
When that didn’t work, he tried to pump up a couple of the other kids. To do what, wasn’t altogether defined. But since the van was moving, however slowly, past hills that were visibly on fire, the idea of one or more of the kids taking it into their heads to try to find a way to AWOL was….concerning, as Bates would describe it later.
Bates and Durazo-Kent decided what they needed was an escort, specifically one with lights and sirens, that could get them up the coast to the Ventura County line, where they would have better and faster route options.
As Bates tried to creep the van along PCH to some area where they could safely wait and regroup, Durazo found she had cell service, however spotty, so after a few rounds of calls made, and a call or two received, she learned they would get their escort.
Eventually, Bates found a safe area to park at PCH and Zumirez, where he and Durazo-Kent worked to calm the agitated youth. There, Bates glanced at the burning hillside and hoped absently that his own house would make it through this massive fire.
Very early that morning, he had helped his wife and kids pack a few of each person’s most cherished belongings, along with those of his mother, who had a house on the same property. His family then left to stay at his sister’s place in Oxnard, while he left for Kilpatrick. So he at least knew his family was okay. He was less sure about his house.
During a lull, Bates asked Durazo-Kent to call his wife and tell her to call Captain Mullen—whom the couple considered a friend—and remind him to check on Kilpatrick, just to make sure everyone got out.
But, of course, Mullen was already there, and everyone had not made it out at all.
Lights and sirens
An hour or so earlier that morning, Howard Wong was driving to his office at probation headquarters on Imperial Hwy in Downey, CA, listening to KFI AM radio as he drove. Suddenly, near the top of the 7 o’clock hour KFI issued a breaking news alert. Malibu was being evacuated because of the Woolsey Fire.
The announcer reported that the fire had jumped the 101 Freeway a little after 5 a.m., and now was racing seaward.
Wong is a Deputy Director on the adult side of probation’s organizational chart, which means he’s reasonably high on the executive ladder.
Among his responsibilities, Wong is the head of what is known as the department’s Special Enforcement Unit or SEU. This is probation’s armed unit, the members of which are called out for a variety of purposes when there is the need.
The night before, Wong had certainly been aware of the Woolsey Fire, but it didn’t occupy his thoughts.
“I knew there was a fire, but it hadn’t jumped the 101 yet,” he said. Plus, the department’s youth programs weren’t his main areas of responsibility, so he wasn’t hyper-focused on the fire’s possible effect on the juvenile facilities.
Now, however, the KFI broadcast had gotten his attention. When Wong got to his office a few minutes later, he checked his work email expecting to see an email chain about evacuating Kilpatrick.
“But I looked at my email and I saw nothing. No evacuation order, or anything.”
He would hear later that there were emails exchanged between department leaders the night before, on Thursday night. But this morning, as far as he could see…zero.
Most importantly, “there was no evacuation order.”
Earlier in his career with probation, Wong had worked at Camp David Gonzales, which was also located in the Santa Monica Mountains, so he was acquainted with the serious fire danger such areas could face.
Wong reportedly started his own email chain to LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald, and her two seconds-in-command, Chief Deputy Sheila Mitchell, and Chief Deputy Reaver Bingham, and some others, hoping to find out what was what, and how he could help.
He also contacted his armed people, a large number of whom had been up and on duty since the wee hours and were now in mobile units distributed all around LA County. He pinged everyone and told them to turn their special Motorola radios to a specific channel, then let him know what unit or units were anywhere near Malibu, or in the parts of the San Fernando Valley that were nearest to the fire-affected mountains.
He got a shout from one team that was in Santa Monica, which turned out to be the closest location of any of the units. He told the team to get on PCH and start moving toward Malibu, just in case.
Somewhere around 8:30 or 8:40 a.m. Wong got word from Downey headquarters about Bates and Durazo-Kent being stuck on the coast and requesting an escort up PCH. He passed this along to his Santa Monica unit. A female member of the unit knew Durazo-Kent, and had her cell number, so dialed her to say that they were on the way.
By then, Bates remembered that Ventura County had a juvenile hall located in Oxnard, and thought that might be a good place for his antsy kids to take bathroom breaks and maybe get brown bag lunches. He and Durazo-Kent had been feeding the nine boys snacks in order to settle everybody down, but they would soon need something more substantial.
One of the SEU unit’s other members, Nick Esparza, reportedly made the call to Ventura County’s Department of Probation to arrange everything.
By around 10:05 a.m. the van and the SEU group were able to meet up on PCH. Shortly after that, they began caravanning with lights and sirens blazing toward the Oxnard facility 34 miles away, where they would also meet up with Will Robinson and the trans van. Robinson had taken a slightly different route and was reportedly also hoping for an escort.
At Ventura Juvenile Hall, the staff members were extravagantly kind and welcoming, and once the kids were fed, and the requisite bathroom breaks were accomplished, the group began driving north toward the Challenger Memorial Youth Center located in Lancaster.
Challenger was another of the county’s juvenile facilities that was vacant and which, after a period of behind the scenes crossed wires, was selected as the Kilpatrick kids’ new temporary home.
Meanwhile, back at Kilpatrick, things were—literally—growing darker
For the first couple of hours, the staff members who remained at Kilpatrick were universally proactive.
Supervisor Lockhart was the primary point person coordinating with Mullen and the firefighters.
Supervisor Khan was mostly with the group—or groups—that were putting out embers. But she also kept eye on where the fire was in relation to the staff’s cars in case they needed to be moved to a safer location. At one point, for example, the cars were on the basketball courts, but when parts of Camp Miller, the sister camp, started burning, that no longer seemed safe. But when the fire got closer and the car hoods began getting warm again, it appeared it might be better to move them back to the basketball courts.
Like everyone else, DPO Dorian May moved his car from the concrete to the grassy area, and then back again. May had been working pretty much non-stop putting out spot fires caused by embers. But now he stopped to consider the situation
After the last car move, May had, at first, picked up his hose again intending to go back to drenching embers. But suddenly he couldn’t do it anymore. He sat down on one of the exercise machines near the campus’s volleyball court and stared slowly around.
Everywhere he looked there was fire.
“We’re not going to make it,” he thought.
Although he would disclose such feelings much later to others of the 13 who stayed at Kilpatrick during the worst of the fire, right then May hoped that none of his fellow staff members would read what he was thinking.
“We’re not gonna make it,” he repeated silently. And if that was so, who was going to take care of his mother, May wondered. Who would take care of his wife?’
Then, not knowing what else to do, he went back to work.
At around that same time, Marlon Espiritu began mentally saying goodbye to his kids. Espiritu lives in Pomona and had left home at 4:30 a.m.
“I actually said goodbye twice,” he said. “Who goes to work thinking you’re going to be saying goodbye to your family. I still think about that.”
On the white bus, the 22 kids had been unusually cooperative.
But now the boys too were starting to quietly express their fears—either to the staff on the bus or to others, who stopped in or escorted them for bathroom breaks.
“D’you think we’re going to get out of here?” one boy asked a staff member.
Some were panicking more than others. “And it was hard to know what to tell them,” the DPO said later.
“Plus, if we weren’t careful, they could see the answers on our faces. We all had that look of ‘What are we going to do now?’”
As the sky got darker with smoke and ash, the staff members had a harder time feeling hopeful.
“I looked to my right and there’s a female staff who’s exhausted, and not moving,” said one DPO. “I looked at another woman who’s crying because she’s thinking of her family. And there’s another man I see, and he’s making a video for his kids because he doesn’t believe he’ll see them again.”
Later everyone would learn that many of the staff members made such videos.
All the while, fire conditions grew ever more terrifying. Mullen and his men were outside the compound working, where no one could really see them, except for Lockhart who occasionally went to confer with Mullen then would broadcast what she’d learned to the staff.
Lockhart, who was scheduled to get married the following Saturday, November 17, made her own goodbye video. Then later, she forgot she’d ever made it. Overall, she felt she couldn’t take time to be scared. She needed to stay adrenalized; in an “altered state” she would say later.
Behind the cottages, things were starting to burn. There were sky-high flames at the back of the camp. And Miller was catching on fire.
The hillside near the camp’s swimming pool appeared to be catching on fire too.
Aaron Chang decided to open up the gate to the pool, thinking that if the situation got much worse the staff members and the kids could all jump in and breathe through damp towels.
Chang made his own video message to his family and decided if everything went wrong, he would tuck his phone under the grass where he believed it would likely survive. He hoped it would be found if he never made it home.
Into the night
Despite their growing fears, the staff continued to do what they had to do.
Some occasionally got into their cars and sobbed briefly out of sight. Several got into their cars and prayed for a while. Then each staff member seemed always to get out and go back to work.
By this time, the paper masks were no longer working. So everyone had a shirt or sweatshirt that they dipped into water and put in front of their mouths to help them breathe.
As the smoke got worse and the spot fires felt more difficult to contain. Khan and DPO Saldana went out to ask Mullen if he and his men would bring their truck inside the compound and address fires inside. They were “becoming more serious,” Saldana said.
“Give me a couple of minutes,” Mullen said. He wanted to finish some of the things they were trying to control at the camp’s periphery.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, Mullen and his firefighters came inside to start putting out some of those close-in fires.
The fire guys had professional breathing equipment, but there came a time that the staff could no longer be outside at all, as the smoke was too intense.
It was about this point that the fire that had been coming their way along Encinal Canyon Road now surrounded the camp.
The biggest and most threatening part of the blaze was right across Encinal and slightly to the south of Kilpatrick where the mouth of Zuma Canyon yawned in a gigantic gorge choked entirely with dry chapparal.
“To be honest,” Mullen said, “in all the years I’ve been at the station, whenever I’d go by that canyon, I’d think to myself, ‘Man, if that thing ever goes off…’”
At ten-something in the morning on Friday, that’s exactly what happened. The long-slumbering, fire monster that was Zuma Canyon did “go off, “producing a giant cloud of flammable gases, which in turn became a massive and billowing conflagration.
This meant that, for an indeterminate and terrifying amount of time, Zuma Canyon birthed a flaming dragon of skyscraper proportions, which hovered menacingly next to the camp blowing its fiery and roiling dragons’ breath straight toward Kilpatrick.
At the same time, for those trying to weather the fire at Kilpatrick, day turned into night.
The darkness lasted somewhere between 15 or 20 minutes—and forever. (No one including Mullen seems confident of their estimate of the blackout’s frightening duration.)
Yet, eventually, the darkness lessened and the daylight began to break through the artificial night. And gradually the fire began to move on. There was a brief alarming period when the fire doubled back on itself and seemed to be returning. Yet, it didn’t last. The worst was finally over. And everyone had made it through.
Not too long after that, Mullen told the staff that he was leaving, that he had to take care of some other issues elsewhere, that they’d be okay and, not to worry, he would return in a while. He emphasized that they shouldn’t try to leave until he got back.
Before he and the other firefighters left, Lockhart asked Mullen if he’d mind talking to the kids.
Of course, he wouldn’t mind.
Mullen got on the bus.
“This is one of the most dangerous fires I’ve ever seen,” he told the boys.”But you guys should all give yourself a pat on the back because you stayed calm. I’m proud of you for keeping your cool. That was a very, very dangerous fire out there. So you should be proud of yourselves.”
When he was finished the kids whooped and cheered.
He also gave the adult version of the message to the staff. Then he and the engine and the other two firefighters drove away.
At around 11 a.m. Mullen stopped by Kilpatrick, talked to Lockhart and saw that everyone was okay.
Another half-hour after that, either Ventura County sheriff’s deputies or Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies (there’s some dispute) arrived to escort bus, kids, and staff down the mountain, then first to Ventura Juvenile Hall, for the now requisite brown bag lunches for the kids, after that, north to Lancaster and Camp Challenger.
In all, the 13 staff members and the 22 kids had been in the smokey clutches of the big, bad and very dangerous Woolsey Fire for close to four hours. But now they were about to be released.
When the bus got moving the boys started clapping and laughing, in both excitement and relief, a staff member remembers.
But they reportedly sobered up again as they stared out the bus’s windows.
“What we were passing was like one of those rides at Universal City where they show you what it looks like when an airplane crashes. Suddenly the reality hit them”
At Camp Challenger, the kids were desperate to call their parents, to say they were okay. They were reportedly each given a chance to make a short call of about five minutes in duration. Later they had pizza. They also saw county psychologists, either that night or the next day.
“They saved us,” several exhausted staff members heard kids whisper to one another,
Facing the inferno
It was a day or two before DPO Bruce Bates learned that his house had burned to the ground, as had his mother’s house.
Supervisor Tanesha Lockhart was able to go through with her wedding the Saturday following the evacuation, but she delayed her honeymoon for several months.
It appears that most or all of the staff members who were present for the worst of the Woolsey/Kilpatrick experience have reported a range of residual effects.
(More on that in Part 3 of the story.)
Most of those who “sheltered in place” also believe that Captain Rick Mullen and his two colleagues saved their lives.
Mullen tends to deflect such compliments.
“Going through a big fire is a once in a lifetime experience,” he said.
“But see, they were essentially at ground zero for the inferno!”
Mullen hit the word “inferno” hard to emphasize the almost larger-than-life intensity of what Kilpatrick’s kids and staff underwent for three-and-a-half hours.
“You can see from the photos,” he said, “that the amount of energy released” in the fire that burned near to and around the camp “was….insane.” Still, there wasn’t really any alternative at that point but to stay, said Mullen, his voice even again.
On the topic of evacuations in general, he talked about a few basic principles.
“It’s much easier for a family to just jump in the car and go.” But with a facility like Kilpatrick, he said, “you have to have a wider margin for error.”
Mullen is a pro’s pro and frequently lectures on wildland fires and other elements of firefighting. One of the things he teaches he said, is “‘always trust the man on the ground.” It’s easy to micromanage, but if you’re not there….and if you’re impeding the ability of those who are on scene to act, that’s probably a more complicated equation than you should have.”
There are great lessons here for everybody, Mullen said of the Woolsey experience.
“For example, if you’re sitting in a sea of heavy brush that hasn’t burned in 60 years, and there’s a possibility that a very substantial brush fire might be headed your way,” you might want to activate your evacuation plan.
“Even if the fire doesn’t come and it’s a drill, you’ll locate weak points in your plan,” and that’s a good thing.
“There’s a happy ending to this story,” Mullen said toward the end of our discussion of the Kilpatrick experience.
“But there are serious lessons to be learned.”
It’s true. There is a very happy ending to this story, with a list of genuine heroes who deserve to be celebrated.
Yet, what would have happened if, say, Captain Mullen was tied up elsewhere on the day in question, and he didn’t make that one last check on Kilpatrick at 8 a.m. on Friday, November 9, 2018, in order find out if the camp’s kids and its staff were already safely evacuated?
The Kilpatrick staff members happen to be a smart, brave, and resourceful group. We’ve seen what they can do in the face of very daunting conditions. So maybe everything would have turned out fine.
Yet, another local fire official whom we spoke to about Kilpatrick and the Woolsey Fire, had lingering worries.
When he thinks of that Friday, he said, “it still frightens the living….well…you know what…out of me.”
Because of what could have happened?
“Because of what could have happened,” he said.
“People don’t know fire behavior like we do. See, no fire’s ever going to be the same. Every fire has a mind of its own. The speed of these fires, they can just outrun you.
“People say, ‘that fire’s a mile and a half, two miles away. We’ve got plenty of time.’
“No. You don’t.”
So have the necessary lessons been learned?
Based on WitnessLA’s multiple months of research, at this moment the question is very much open.
Photos & video credits
The top photo for the story was kindly provided by Captain Rick Mullen. You’ll see from certain captions that he allowed WitnessLA to use a couple of other photos as well. The rest of the photos and videos, unless otherwise noted, were generously provided to WitnessLA by members of the Kilpatrick staff. We are grateful to all for the use of these powerful images.
Editor’s note: How this series was researched
To report this story, WitnessLA talked to 15 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 and/or remarks of various staff members, it does not necessarily mean we talked to those staff members directly. Sometimes a quote or a description may result from descriptions given to us by other staff members who were present, and with whom we spoke at length.
We conducted more than 30 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 four LA County Fire officials 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.
When our times of day or other facts are imprecise, that is because we have gotten multiple estimates of the times this or that occurred, and how it occurred. Our descriptions reflect our best efforts at resolving discrepancies in our various sources recollections.
If we ‘ve gotten anything wrong, please let us know.