The City of Malibu provided an opportunity for residents to mark the first anniversary of the Woolsey Fire last Saturday at Zuma Beach. The idea was not only to remember last year’s horrific events, but to honor Malibu’s recovery and resilience since then.
Zuma Beach was an appropriate choice for the venue, with so many of the Woolsey Fire burn areas either in plain sight or just a short distance away. The Zuma Beach parking lot was also the spot where so many residents spent the night as the Woolsey fire burned—hoping against hope that their house would somehow escape, and that they could return home again the next morning.
The city event couldn’t accurately be called a celebration, nor could it really be called a memorial. It marked the passage of time since the event that changed the community of Malibu—probably forever, or at least for years. In that one year, most local business revenues are still down by at least 20 percent, public school enrollment is down by about 15 percent and the overall population numbers have dropped. Many fire victims left town—some to return in the future, others not planning to return.
Hundreds turned up for the two-hour city event, where they could sit at tables with umbrellas, munch on delicious snacks provided by Paradise Cove Café, and pick up some giveaways—a free native tree to plant in the yard, a cap, t-shirt or shopping bag with the words “Malibu Stronger Together,” and a solar-powered radio/phone charger for the next emergency.
The event featured a brief statement by Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer, who said, “The Woolsey Fire changed our lives forever... It was terrifying and deeply saddening, but acts of bravery, kindness and support made me feel optimistic... [We’re here today to] celebrate that bravery and rebuild our community.”
The formal program consisted of several songs by the Malibu Middle and High School choirs, a reading of the poem “We are Here” by Malibu Poet Laureate Ellen Reich, a musical performance by Malibu’s Brandon Jenner and personal testimonials from community members.
Although the program was thoughtfully done, the most important value of the Community Gathering for most residents seemed to be the chance to interact with their friends and neighbors to remember the fire and catch up with what’s happening in their lives or their rebuilding process.
The wide cross-section of residents was proof of just how traumatized nearly everyone was after the fire—whether they evacuated or not, whether their house was lost or damaged or not, there wasn’t anyone living in Malibu who wasn’t somehow deeply affected by the worst natural disaster in the city’s history.
One couple who attended the gathering, Jim and Sandy McHenry, had a long personal story about the fire that seemed to exemplify what a lot of residents experienced: strong roots in Malibu, a love of the land, previous experience with wildfires and neighbors coming together to help each other.
Jim had originally moved to Malibu with his family in 1949, at the age of 11. He was in the first class to graduate from the new Webster Elementary School. His family lived on Bonsall, and rented land in the back of Zuma Canyon to grow hay to feed their horses. His father, a teacher at Santa Monica College, wanted to raise his children in a rural area.
On Bonsall, the family experienced four wildfires through the years and never evacuated during any of them. “Had we evacuated during any of those fires, we would’ve lost the family house,” Jim said.
Fast forward to today, and the couple is living in the Point Dume Club. During the Woolsey Fire, they didn’t evacuate for one week, along with only six others in the entire neighborhood. There was no power early on. They watched the “fire tornado” come down Trancas and burn toward them as they watered down their roofs. All the neighbors pulled together—they shared one person’s gas stove to boil water, shared a battery-powered radio, the only two people with phone reception shared their phones and some picked up supplies from the elementary school.
“Neighbors that had only ever said hello before became friends,” Sandy said.