When the Woolsey fire broke out a year ago at Boeing’s shuttered nuclear and rocket engine testing site near Simi Valley, a private fire crew working for the aerospace giant was the closest to the flames.
A firetruck headed to the scene. But it didn’t get far.
Minutes after leaving the station, Boeing’s white older-model truck puttered to a stop not far from where the fire was burning, sources familiar with the day’s events told the Los Angeles Times. It would prove to be just one in a chain of things that went wrong in the early battle against what would become the most destructive fire in modern Los Angeles County history.
Fueled by 25 mph winds on a red flag day, the Woolsey fire grew at a terrifying clip. With Boeing’s truck breaking down just over a mile from the station near the facility’s gate, it would take almost 20 minutes for the first local firefighters to arrive on the scene. On this day, the Ventura County Fire Department was already busy fighting the Hill fire, which was threatening dozens of homes and businesses.
When they did arrive, local firefighters found a wind-driven, two-headed blaze rapidly spreading through rocky, hilly terrain. It would go on to burn more than 1,000 homes from Oak Park to Malibu and cause the deaths of four people.
NASA contractors and staff evacuated within minutes of the fire’s start. Boeing’s firetruck was abandoned where it sat about 50 feet off the road, a local firefighter told The Times.
One Boeing staff member on the scene mentioned that the aerospace company’s truck had experienced problems with its radiator, said the firefighter, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
The broken-down truck was one of several problems that bedeviled the early fight against the Woolsey fire.
A Times investigation earlier this year found that in the first few hours of the fire, first responders’ efforts were hampered by the lack of a clear plan from incident leaders and a need for more firefighters on the front lines in Ventura County. The Los Angeles County Fire Department kept dozens of firefighters in Agoura Hills, rather than sending them to the front lines — waiting for the fire to reach L.A. County.
An L.A. County report released last month came to similar conclusions, noting that local fire leaders’ pleas to nearby fire chiefs for more mutual aid help were not answered, causing a substantial lack of firefighters and equipment to stop the fast-moving blaze. The draft report does not mention the truck breakdown, as Boeing declined to participate because of pending litigation, which limited the ability of the report’s authors to compile any information about the aerospace company’s Santa Susana Field Lab or its firefighting efforts.
In February, residents filed a lawsuit against Boeing and Southern California Edison, alleging the companies were negligent in their duties to protect the property from catching fire.
Edison said in a recent quarterly earnings report that the company had seen a redacted draft of the Woolsey fire report in which the Ventura County Fire Department’s investigation team determined that electrical equipment owned and operated by Edison was the cause of the Woolsey fire. “Absent additional evidence, SCE believes that it is likely that its equipment was associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire,” the company wrote.
Allied Universal, which provides security services at the field lab, declined to answer questions from The Times and said it directs all media inquiries on the Woolsey fire to Boeing.
Citing pending litigation, Boeing declined to answer specific questions about its firetruck or firefighter staffing level.
Instead, Boeing spokeswoman Chamila Nothum said in a statement that the company had security and fire personnel stationed at the Santa Susana site, and that on the day of the Woolsey fire, flames were reported at two locations on the site.
“Firefighting agencies were promptly notified, and four fire and security personnel stationed at the Santa Susana site promptly responded to the report of the fire,” Nothum said. “Upon arrival, the external county and municipal fire jurisdictions established incident command over the firefighting activities. Personnel stationed at the Santa Susana site continued to engage in firefighting activities and assisted county and municipal firefighters. While responding to the fire, firefighting agencies had access to water from Boeing’s property on the Santa Susana site. Boeing also took steps to notify personnel working at the site of the fire.”
A firefighter who responded to the Woolsey fire told The Times that a Boeing staff member helped guide first responders around the facility, but he did not recall working with any Boeing firefighters to combat the actual blaze.
The facility opened in 1948 when North American Aviation — later North American Aviation Rocketdyne Division, then Rockwell International and, more recently, Boeing — began research, development and testing of rocket engines, in cooperation with the U.S. Army Air Forces, according to NASA.
Boeing boasts on its website that “virtually every major U.S. space program, from the first manned Mercury flights to the Apollo moon landings and Space Shuttle fleet, owns part of its success” to work completed at the 2,850-acre site in the Simi Hills.
At its height in 1964, Rocketdyne employed 9,000 people at the field lab and more at the Canoga Park plant.
The site and its cleanup have been the focus of multiple lawsuits in recent years brought on by environmental and public health advocates who have argued the site is in need of substantial remediation. In 1959, the site experienced the first partial nuclear meltdown in America. In 2012, a survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found hundreds of radioactive hot spots at the site.
At one time, the Santa Susana Field Lab had a robust fire crew and a 6,634-square-foot fire station, equipped with about five fire engines and trucks, including two brush rigs, along with at least one ambulance, former Rocketdyne firefighters told The Times. It also had 2.2 million gallons of water in tanks that fed hydrants scattered throughout the facility.
It remains unclear how many firefighters are still based at the facility, with many of the operations mothballed. As part of the site’s cleanup, the facility’s large fire station was recently demolished. It sat near Southern California Edison’s electrical substation that relayed two minutes before the Woolsey fire started.
Scott Promen, 62, who worked as a firefighter at the field lab through the 1980s, said the Santa Susana fire crew used to train regularly, and occasionally they would staff a nearby Ventura County fire station when the county was on assignment.
Promen said although there’s only a fraction of the people working at the Santa Susana Field Lab, the site still has people and electrical lines, two of the most frequent causes of fires.