“I was really, really disappointed and left wondering what’s going to happen,” retired fire captain Mike McKean said—after watching his Malibu Park home burn down without support from any fire engines or water drops.

McKean said he felt confident the fire department would be able to save the neighborhood, and watched in horror from a spot on Zuma Beach as flames overtook dozens of homes.

“My wife was pretty intense, excited—as happens—when we got the [evacuation] call Friday morning. I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,’ and we packed up a couple things,” McKean described. “I didn’t take it probably as seriously as I should have, but we did go down to Zuma Beach for a while to watch.”

Speaking before a crowd of nearly 300—the vast majority newly homeless following the wreckage of the Woolsey Fire—McKean detailed what happened on Friday, Nov. 9.

“I’m a retired fireman; I’ve been to four fires in Malibu over the years, ended up saving a lot of houses along the way—this time, when it came over the top of Trancas, I just chilled,” McKean recalled. “I looked up and said, ‘The good news is, wind’s really not blowing. The flames are going straight up. This is when they’re really going to come and hit it hard with the tankers and the choppers.’ 

“We stood at Zuma Beach for about an hour, and no tankers, no choppers,” McKean said. “We did see 12 engines, some from Ventura, some from Oxnard. They were busy taking a lot of selfies and pointing at the flames, and I said, ‘This is not looking good, what’s the plan here?’ And then one by one they drove out and headed south down the highway. We were at the far end of Zuma Beach, right below Guernsey, and about that time I realized my collectors’ Porsche should have been moved—it didn’t get moved. I was really, really disappointed and left wondering what’s going to happen. 

“After that, the first firestorm came through,” the retired fire captain said. “I drove back up Guernsey and I said, ‘The firestorm’s passed, I’m sure if I go up there, I can direct the engines to go. I know the neighborhood really well.’ I got up there, I got about 200 yards from our home and I was driven out by another firestorm. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out. If I had been outside the car, it would have been all over. 

“So, I realized at that point, that no fire engines were going to be going up there,” he said. “I went back four hours later and our house had just started to burn and unfortunately we had to stand there in front of it and watch it burn to the ground. So, I’m crushed, I’m very disappointed, but it looks like I have a lot of company.”

That company was gathered for the first Operation Recovery meeting following the Woolsey Fire. Operation Recovery, a group initially formed following the 1993 Malibu-Topanga Fire, was reactivated following the Woolsey Fire that swept from the 101 to the ocean earlier in November, taking with it an estimated 400-500 homes in Malibu alone. The meeting was held Sunday at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue. 

“We never at any time saw an LA County Fire truck at any time on Friday,” a Corral Canyon resident named Bob described. He said the treatment residents received from emergency personnel, such as sheriff’s officials who set up roadblocks closing off streets and neighborhoods following the fire, was “an utter and absolute disgrace.”

More of those who lost homes stood to speak about firefighters apparently standing idly by as structures burned or even taunting those working to save their neighborhoods.

The meeting, which went from 4-6 p.m. at the Malibu Jewish Center, was at times a massive grief counseling session, at times an emergency information and resources seminar, and at times a family reunion, with food and drinks donated for attendees by Monrose Catering, free of charge to all who came. Legal advice was given—such as, read the declarations page, the first page of your insurance policy, very carefully. It will lay out exactly what type of coverage you should expect. 

There were also calls to organize, with groups of displaced residents formulating a plan to address county supervisors.

Organizers Arnold and Karen York (also publishers of The Malibu Times) divided those who lost their homes into groups based on insurance carriers. That way, everyone insured by the same company could communicate, share information and back one another up with negotiations. 

FEMA representatives in attendance pointed out that those who did not lose their homes but suffered smoke damage were entitled to get help, possibly help from FEMA. The federal agency also offers help to renters, not just homeowners. 

Other bits of advice:

-Make sure any contractor you work with has a contractor’s license—ask to see it and verify its legitimacy.

-Once it comes time to begin waste removal, invest in high quality respirator masks, gloves and boots—much of the ash is toxic.

-Try to stay as calm and focused as possible, especially while driving. Free mental health resources like the iChill phone app were recommended. 

-Seek legal advice from Pepperdine University Law School’s pro bono disaster relief clinic. 

Following the meeting, the Malibu Film Society opened its doors to show a double-feature, providing a little levity—and normalcy—for the hundreds grappling with their recent losses.

The next Operation Recovery meeting will be held on Sunday, Dec. 2, at MJCS, from 2-4 p.m.

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