From Nov. 8, 2018, until its final containment on Nov. 22, the Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres. It killed three people. The fire destroyed 1,643 structures, approximately 750 of them in the greater Malibu area. Some feared the fire could destroy the fabric that held Malibu—especially western Malibu—together. Even a year later, many families remain displaced and some will never again return.
Only weeks after Woolsey, dramatic rainstorms doused the burned hillsides, threatening the scorched slopes of Malibu Park and adding to the fear and pain felt among those who had already lost so much. But by the spring, Malibu’s mountains sprang to life with a colorful array of wildflowers as rainbows lit up the sky, bringing with them a promise of hope.
That much-feared destruction of Malibu, of the Malibu way of life, did not occur.
In many ways, the one-year anniversary of Woolsey is just the very beginning of a long road to recovery for Malibu—the physical rebuilding of what was lost, and the psychological recovery of our community and our trust in our elected officials and government institutions.
Some called this fire the YOYO fire—”You’re On Your Own”—and that mentality has helped steel the community, lifting each other up with the belief no one except their neighbors will be there for them in their time of need. It’s yet to be seen whether trust will be restored in the fire department, county government and even city officials of Malibu.
When The Malibu Times asked for submissions from the community reflecting on the Woolsey Fire, we were overwhelmed with responses—more than 40 community members wrote in, offering more than 100 photos, stories, letters and messages about the fire and its aftermath.
The story of Malibu in the year after the Woolsey Fire was one of contradictions—time seemed to stand still, while weeks and months flew by. Fire victims grew embittered, but also inspired—resigned while also standing resolute.
Out of those thoughtful contributions, we offer this tribute to the community’s experiences and reflections on what has happened and what is yet to come.
This is an eyewitness story of the firefight that took place in the El Nido area of Corral Canyon, Malibu.
It was a battle between the fire and the old Corral Canyon volunteer fire brigade, some truly fine neighbors (12-15) and four honestly courageous volunteers from the Malibu Labor Exchange. These four fellows, like everyone else involved, helped to save a neighborhood of people they did not even know. I personally witnessed them, along with the Wherrys and John Embelton (who turned the fire away from three homes on Sequit) fight the fire with shovels and dirt.
Matt Haines, Richard Bertram and Doug Pace were battling to save Matt’s own partially built house when they lost all water pressure three-quarters of the way through the firefight. They were forced into a hand-to-hand battle again with shovel and dirt and came out victorious! I am convinced those guys stopped the movement of the fire down from the north, saving who knows how many homes.
Bill Raffin, a homeowner with the foresight to be as prepared as possible, had three good fire fighting pumps connected to his large koi pond with hundreds of feet of hose. They were able to use this water to keep his home and approximately 11 of his neighbors homes safe.
Also in the area, helping with the fight was Bill Parks, Caroline Anderson, David Hada and Paul Hurtubise. John Rodrique was able to save his own home and three or more of his neighbors. James on Searidge fought to protect the homes up on Corral and with the help of a very accurate airstrike all together, they were successful.
There was Julia Henderson, Marguerite Wherry and Paul Levy, all of whom ran their tails off, up and down the hills, keeping everyone up to date as to the fire’s latest position. They were instrumental in keeping the various groups in communication with each others’ location and progress.
I would like to share my heartfelt gratitude to all my fine neighbors and even more importantly to the four heroic labor exchange guys, Diego Avalos, Joshua Crawford, Julio Osorio and Jorge Gutierres, who worked so hard to keep our homes safe. These men stood their ground and enthusiastically ran into the fight, it was something to see. They left our small team of neighbors in awe of their courage and gentle nature. These four gentleman earned their wings that long night and we will be forever grateful.
In conclusion, what I’d like to say is you can never truly know what kind of person you may just pass off as one of the homeless or the gallant deeds someone on the street may have done in their past or maybe a vet who gave all they had and lost it all. Next time you see a person less fortunate than you, just for a moment, remember this story and try to remember it just may be... there but by the grace of God, go thee.
Sincere gratitude for all those who battled along side of us to fight this devastating fire and heartfelt prayers for those who lost their homes. May we rebuild and keep Malibu strong.
As avid sailors and newly wedded, we had just returned from our honeymoon, sailing for two weeks in the West Indies. We arrived home after a long and delayed journey at 4 a.m. Thursday morning.
We didn’t sleep more than a few hours and promised ourselves Thursday night that we would turn all distractions off and sleep until late morning on Friday, which was Nov. 9. Exhausted, we fell into a deep, blissful sleep. No more noisy creaking boat, ocean sounds and night watches.
I awoke around 9 a.m. and noticed how silent everything was. My first thoughts were, “How peaceful, I’m home.” My second thoughts were, “There is no birdsong in the air.” Just rustling palm fronds in a dry wind. An eerie foreboding silence.
I turned my phone on and it started pinging and pinging, messages sent over the last few hours asking if we were OK, had we evacuated yet. Our bedroom looked to the sea and all I saw out my window was blue sky and blue ocean.
I awakened Michael and said, “I am not sure what is going on but I think there must be a fire near us!” Still calm, as all looked OK outside, I got up to make our tea and coffee. I stepped outside to see what else I could determine and was hit by a strong scent of smoke. I walked out further on the deck and looked behind the house up at the mountains and there was swirling smoke blowing fast toward the coast.
“Mike! Quick, get up, there IS a fire and it seems to be heading our way!” Mike, having been retired after 38 years with SMFD came out to have a look and was very calm and reassuring that he was sure the fire department would have things in hand. Meanwhile, our neighbors appeared in their drive and said “We all need to evacuate, now!”
We had not even unpacked our suitcases from our honeymoon ocean voyage, so we threw those in the car, loaded some of our wedding gifts, my photo albums and scrapbooks going back 50 years, important documents and for some reason a big down duvet and my feather pillows. That was it.
Down to Zuma Beach where all the neighborhood had gathered along with skittish horses and llamas, anxious pets and wild animals. There was even an owl nestled into the sand! We were all on the beach together. A strange calm and quiet enveloped us. A hush, as we spoke to each other.
There were 10-15 fire trucks parked directly in front of us. Firefighters took a group selfie while the fire began sweeping across Trancas behind them.
I asked Mike, former fire captain, why the guys were not up there fighting the spot fire as it grew in strength by the second, he replied, “This is nothing to worry about. They will be fighting the flames soon, and will be backed up by air support, you will see!”
Well, we never saw. The trucks peeled away one by one, headed without sirens on, down the coast highway. Gone.
The fire grew more fierce and the towering mountain of smoke thousands of feet high, engulfed the coast and caught fire right down to PCH. We could see the flames marching straight into the heart of Malibu Park.
At one point, Mike tried to drive back to our home but was caught in a howling firenado on Phillip Ave. He was suddenly surrounded by intense heat and no vision. Blindly, he spun the car around and barely escaped the car stalling from the heat and getting incinerated.
I was so grateful to see his face re-appear! Standing there, hugging him at the side of PCH with the wind blowing so hard it triggered a sand and smoke storm. I held him in my arms, feeling like we were in “Gone with the Wind” and the burning of Atlanta.
The smoke became too much for everyone at Zuma so we all headed for Westward Beach and stood in front of the Sunset. The huge menacing black cloud of smoke was now on the ocean eating up the sunlight and creating a strange, jade green color on the flat, still water.
The fire was now advancing and had jumped the coast highway heading into Point Dume. Flames appeared on Bluewater, making their way down the narrow winding road, ablaze on both sides. We needed to get away again and so drove back to Zuma. The smoke was so intense and we all were coughing. No one wanted to believe our homes had really burned down.
People started to think about where they were going to go, up or down the coast. It was time for us to leave, if only to breathe again.
At around 3 o’clock, just six hours after we had awakened so unaware of how our lives would change in that short time, we decided to head to Ventura. As we were about to pass Guernsey, I motioned from my car to Mike in his, to go back and see if our home survived. We turned right at Guernsey and on up to Harvester. We passed the Mcloskey’s home looking like an oasis of green in the midst of blackened trees and land.
As we rounded the corner to Harvester, total desolation appeared before our eyes, smoky ruins dotted the gently rolling hills, now covered in black and gray ash. All of our good neighbors’ homes were totally destroyed. Then we came upon our home and it was in flames. When did ours catch fire when all the others around it were just smoldering ruins by this time? We jumped out of our cars at the bottom of the drive and could see half the house burning and our bedroom, where we had so gratefully rested our heads after thousands of miles of sailing, on the brink of destruction. I so wanted to rush to it and have one last chance to grab some precious belongings. It was too late. Michael had only just finished building our home a year before. We were in shock. Married in May, burned out in November, we drove away with tears in our eyes and utterly broken hearts.
Lisa and Mike McKean
There is a shift today... a transition into new territory from shock and survival, to moving towards reunion! There’s a different kind of quiet today. I have a sense that everyone on both sides of the barricade is taking a deep breath as we anticipate coming back together.
I feel so strongly that we need to honor each other’s individual pain. People left their homes with bullhorns ordering a mandatory evacuation order! Many who left found out within a couple days that what they had left behind was physically gone. Many who left were relieved to know their home was still standing but their neighbors’ were not, and that brings its own kind of pain. There are those who stayed and fought the fire, only to lose the battle at the very end and in desperation realized they had to leave! There are those who stayed to save their home, and when that was futile they moved onto the next one to save it! Then there are those few in each neighborhood who saved many homes with virtually no outside help, having a momentary feeling of elation for having been able to take on the fire-breathing dragon and win... only to be immediately followed by the devastating reality that so much around them is gone. And then there are those who didn’t evacuate, and didn’t stay, because they weren’t here. They don’t live here anymore, but their hearts are still tied here through a personal history in this place. They only had the agony of watching from afar as their family and friends and their hometown endured an incomprehensible horror! My daughter in Oceanside who cried on the phone with me while I sat in the Zuma parking lot waiting to see if our home would survive, told me that this past week can only be described as feeling like her heart was outside of her body.
I want to honor each and every one of you, for whatever you endured, however you had to.
So this quietness suspended above here today, seems like the sound of anticipation. People from the outside awaiting a day very soon where they’ll be coming back, trying to prepare for what they’ll find. It’s also a day of apprehension for those of us on the inside, that what has been absolutely surreal for the past week is going to become very real as our tribe returns. I look forward to it and I also fear it. Because that is when I think we here will finally be able to fall to our knees and let go of a sense of primal protection of our town. Of holding down the fort until the troops can come home. I can’t begin to tell you all how much I cannot wait for our reunion... #MalibuStrong
From a Nov. 16, 2018, Facebook post
‘The Veterinarian’s Socks’
After the devastation of Woolsey, I asked my son, veterinarian John Lupo, if he’d been able to salvage anything from his Malibu home. John hesitated a moment before answering, “Well, I saved a pair of socks, a really nice pair of grey woolen socks.”
I well remember a time, a dozen or so years ago, when John’s socks occupied one corner of a medium sized dresser drawer. Thanks to the generosity of his Malibu clients, the veterinarian’s socks eventually managed to fill that entire drawer and then sprawl into a small laundry basket, then a larger wicker basket, and finally into what would become their final resting place - a medium sized, dog-eared, cardboard box.
A pragmatic man, John had never been a connoisseur of hosiery. A six pack of Nike white performance cushion crews suited him fine; after all, they were barely visible under his Khaki trousers. Who would notice?
It happens that a generous client, a fashion enthusiast himself, did notice the vet’s Nikes, and at Christmas that year, he presented the veterinarian with a package of brightly colored socks.
John’s sock collection continued to expand as other generous clients added to the supply. On one of my visits to the Lupo home, I was surprised to see that John had obtained a clear plastic 24-pocket sock organizer for his most recent acquisitions. The dozens of his older socks (the threadbare, the faded and the just plain ugly) were relegated to the cardboard box. When I suggested that he get rid of the humongous reserve supply, John explained: “You never know, someday those socks might come in handy.”
Like all Malibu residents, John and his family had, over the years, acquired valued possessions: a picnic table, a tire swing and a tree house, a carefully tended garden, a piano and a saxophone, a photo album, a brand new tennis racket, a tricycle, a goalpost, long strings of Christmas lights.
Woolsey took it all. It robbed so much from the citizens, the lovers of Malibu; however, relationships were not lost, but rather enhanced from the shared experience.
After the fire, the same client who had, over the years, given John dozens of pairs of flamboyant socks, stopped in at the vet clinic with a small, sock-sized package. “I thought you might be needing these,” he said, as he handed Dr. Lupo the gift.
November 9, 2018, is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget the sheer size of the fire, the fire tornadoes, the echoing of propane tank explosions through the canyons, and the flames barreling over PCH causing insane amounts of heat to enter my truck. After a sleepless night of watching the news, Twitter, and the radio for updates, the fire jumped the 101 and I knew it was time to go. We left a note on the front door saying we safely evacuated, and thank you to the firefighters. I doubt they ever saw that note and I don’t blame them for not protecting our home. We live in the heart of the brush-filled Santa Monica Mountains. I have heard the fire burned hotter and fiercer here than anywhere else and wouldn’t expect anyone to stand in its way. For a week, we weren’t sure if our home made it, but deep down we knew it didn’t stand a chance.
One year after the fire, we are days away from getting our building permit and starting construction on our new dream home. Living in a trailer on the property has taught us a lot. It has brought us closer to the area we live in, and is teaching us about the up and down roller coaster ride to obtain a building permit. Some things have changed a little though. For example, our weekend BBQs are now chainsaw parties to clear any trees still on the property. A lot of people ask us why after all we have been through, would we ever want to still live here. It’s a pretty simple answer: because Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains are our paradise and with so much fun still to be had, we couldn’t imagine ourselves anywhere else!
Jordan Jacob & Britlyn Coleman
Mulholland Hwy, Malibu
Preparing for the next fire
I saved my house, the houses on either side of me and, next morning, put out embers threatening five more in my totally deserted neighborhood at Kanan Dume Road and Mulholland. The heat had been so intense it melted rims off cars. But I was prepared. I had 30,000 gallons of water ready, 2,000 feet of old fire hose, a couple of five-HP pumps and six very brave friends. I could not have done it alone. Certainly, could not have done it without preparedness and a resolve to be bigger than the Woolsey Fire.
This is what I learned.
Nobody will come to help you. We didn’t see a fire truck in seven days. The only official visit you might get is from the sheriff, who will of course want you to follow orders and leave your house to the flames. If you are not prepared, I suggest you do just that. Property is not worth a life.
You will receive not worthwhile information about the fire, because nobody will be there to give it to you. Apparently, in the City of Malibu, not even the officials knew what was happening. Or at least they didn’t share it. Appears they were not all talking to each other.
Putting out the fire, if you are prepared, is the easy part. The Woolsey Fire, as far as I was concerned, was over in an hour. But the blockade put up by the sheriff, cutting off food for people and animals, lasted a month. That is harshness for license-carrying residents I do not understand.
If you have horses, don’t feed them for 24 hours to when your know the fire will hit. Then turn them out in a cleared area, toss grain all around the ground, and they will spend the next day picking up tiny kernels of corn, head out of smoke. Moving horses in emergency is dangerous and stresses them. It should be done only if there is no other option. My horses got no smoke. I did.
Fire is a dumb force. It has no brains. And it dies when hit with water. It also has no manners; it eats and leaves. Deny it food. And there should be no fire food around your property, ever.
In one morning, I put 30,000 gallons on the fire, most of it from a swimming pool. It died easily, whimpered off to the beach, defeated.
What I did was not brave. I just followed logical steps. I knew what had to be, and I was ready willing and able. It was not even difficult. On a scale of one to 10, the fire caused me a two in anxiety. The sheriff caused me about a 12.
The bottom line of what I learned: You are bigger than any fire, but you can’t go into battle with no soldiers and no weapons. If you have neither, run for your life.
Strong, not gone, with the wind
If you were in Malibu on Nov. 9, 2018, you know. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. Whether you were sitting on PCH for hours waiting to evacuate or thrilled because you had water pressure while the fire approached or a home to come back to, we all experienced both horrible and wonderful moments.
First and foremost, the Woolsey Fire was and will always be the original Yo-Yo (You’re on Your Own) fire. In the aftermath of the fire, I felt all five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Like waves, I still feel all of these emotions, but when it comes to this YOYO fire, there are two more stages—guilt and strength.
All I could say for about six months after the fire was, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Survivor’s guilt. I had a bad case of it. I tried to do my best to listen, help and to even start a teddy bears brigade at City Hall to help soften the blow to the many who lost everything, but nothing seemed to help make my friends feel better.
It’s November again and, to many, this is the beginning of the holiday season, but to me this season is the Santa Ana devil wind season. Instead of snow days, our school children have fire days. Instead of frolicking in the snow, our children live in fear as they listen to the wind howl and the fire sirens blow.
My mantra evolved from I’m sorry to: I’m ready. I’m ready, I’m ready.
Some may run away from winds or fires, but we can all chose to stay strong. We can breathe. We can prepare. We can and must face fears (and tears) with dignity, grace and grit. We can be the change we want to see and with the advent of a year-round fire season, we must be the change to ensure our Malibu way of life continues to blossom—not despite, but because of the tragedies and trials we have overcome together.
Malibu Strong is not just a saying—it is the true new Malibu way of life for many.
Pamela Conley Ulich
‘Hearts of Trees Lost’
The riddles hidden in the work:
What do we really own?
What do we save?
Should I stay or should I go?
Friendships forged by fire
The detritus of total devastation
Transformation and rebirth
A cry for everything turned to ash
Ashes, ashes, we all fall up
Life is a balance of holding on and letting go —Rumi
The fire will come, it will stop at the ocean, no-one will come to help you - Morgan Runyon
The Woolsey Fire reminded us
that we are powerless.
What we loved was charred
beyond recognition. The
monuments we build can be gone in an instant.
What do we really own?
We rise, take our place in nature,
and accept the way things are.
What is lost? What is found?
The strength to rise, like a strong
Reimagine the future
Reach for the heights.
Accept the way things are,
finding courage to see things in
a new light.
To accept transformation.
To reach for the sky.
The hearts of trees, devoid of
roots that once reached deep
into the soil
that were unearthed by nature’s
cleansing fire and torrential
to be reborn.
This piece is a beacon to
We all have inner strength we
Thank you and blessings to OLM and Calgary,
Our Lady of Malibu let me stay on their holy grounds during the fire. While everyone else was “scadadeling” out, I couldn’t. Less than a quarter tank of gas. PCH was a log jam, one way south. OLM never told me to leave, the parishioners who were checking up on her safety were very kind to me and my little dog “Tough E.” Coffee, colas, water, masks and snacks, kindness, and a miracle from “Mystery Martin”—GAS, and $100. I was so outta there.
The Calgary Church has been a huge help to me during the recovery process. Food, clothing, prayers and the mound of paperwork that FEMA requires. Calgary has also provided me with the equipment I needed to get back to work. Which I am. You can find me working with my new portable massage chair set up by the Rock Store on Fridays and Saturdays offering “Manual Medicine’ for your sore, tense shoulders.
My cup surely runs over with gratitude. So grateful am I to all who have helped me and my little Tough E. through this disaster.
Dana Shepard D.N.
Thank you to everyone who submitted photos, art and words to this memorial.