I have spent the last three years building a little house in the Malibu hills. It had a perfect red door, french doors that opened onto a small porch, a ceiling made of glass, and another, larger porch made exclusively for drinking and card playing. I banged every nail, turned every screw, wired every light, carried every piece of wood from the street up to it, and fucked up innumerable times. I have never in my life done something so satisfying and so frustrating. The bookshelves were made from old slabs of fir planed down and lovingly sanded. My desk was a piece of live edge fir that I found rotting in the dirt that had the most beautiful grain hidden beneath the rot and dirt. Old oaks swayed in the wind above the house, and a single, solitary pine stood guard. Frogs croaked from the creek at night and coyotes howled in the hills above. Aside from the cacophony of creatures, it was entirely silent at night. Now it’s a charred and blackened mess, burned to the ground as the Woolsey Fire raced towards the ocean. Losing everything is a strange feeling. The old cliché is right: you never think it will happen to you.
It was 6:00 a.m. when my neighbor Gerry limped up the trail to my house shouting my name, his dog Becks on his heels. Gerry is one of my best friends. A 74-year-old man who has lived in Malibu for forty years, he’s not of the new Malibu stock—he’s not rich, he lives in an unpermitted, uninsured cinderblock house he built himself and he knows everyone. He plays poker with movie stars and bullshits with the homeless people behind the library. He wears only blue sweats, Crocs, and a denim shirt. Gerry helped me build my house in the early stages, although we argued like angry dogs half the time. I was annoyed when he was shouting my name at 6:00 a.m. because Gerry has almost no sense of personal space, and it’s not uncommon for him to wake me up by yelling my name from the street. I love him dearly, but we fight like family.
A few minutes after Gerry woke me up, we stood at the top of the street watching the fire come over the hill. Other neighbors were there too, milling around wondering whether this would be the fire that burned their houses to the ground. Gradually, more and more people started to evacuate. I worked as a wildfire fighter six years, so I was more interested in the helicopters and planes than the fire itself, but a huge, billowing column and a crowning fire will never cease to amaze me. A big fire is like a living animal. It breathes as it moves, sucking in the air around it. If you’re close enough, you can feel the wind being drawn in. It ruffles your hair on its way to becoming fuel. Two fires, if close enough together and big enough, will bend towards each other, drawing each other in with a crackling roar that sounds like nothing else on earth. Tornadoes made of flames dance around with insane glee, consuming everything they can, appearing and disappearing in an instant. Despite what you may have heard, when fires get really big, there’s almost nothing that can stop them—sure, firefighters can contain them if they’re lucky, but the only thing that truly puts a stop to a blazing inferno is rain. “Contain it until it rains,” was often the mantra on large interface project fires I worked on.
After about an hour of watching, Gerry decided he would head down the hill to Pacific Coast Highway. He packed some gasoline, a case of beer, and a few clothes, then piled Becks in the truck and drove off. I headed back to my house to wait and see. My aunt Penny, who lives in a house below mine, was of the opinion that this would be just another scare. Although we live 100 feet apart, we generally communicate via email for various reasons. Here’s our email chain from that morning:
Friday, Nov. 9, 7:03 a.m.
I don’t know if Gerry told you there’s a fire coming. I personally wait for a mandatory evacuation order, which has only happened once in 35 years.
Friday, Nov. 9, 7:06 a.m.
Ah, ok. I was just about to leave. Maybe I’ll make coffee first. He seemed very worried.
Friday, Nov. 9, 7:08 a.m.
Gerry worries. If we need to leave, there will be police cars telling us so by megaphone. I am not even packing up anything as yet.
Friday, Nov. 9, 7:22 a.m.
Ha! Ok, good. He ran up the trail yelling my name. Thanks for the voice of reason. Lots of smoke at the top of the hill by the water tanks. Looks cool.
I drank my coffee, listening to the birds as the smoke drifted over the house, still not really believing that the place I was sitting would become a raging inferno fueled by all of my belongings. Soon, though, the power went out and I decided I should probably go…just in case. Walking down the trail to my aunt’s house, I briefly considered the possibility that it could actually be the last time I saw my little house. The prospect was so horrifying and far-fetched it didn’t really take root in my brain, instead just breezing over it like a whisper. Before I left, I packed my aunt’s cats’ kitty litter box, her desktop computer, and a few other odds and ends into her car. Then I told her I loved her and listened to her tell me she’d be leaving soon, too. She has no laptop and cell phone, and I had emailed her an address where we could meet if the unthinkable happened, but I didn’t ask if she got it before the power went out. Then I drove down Latigo Canyon to PCH.
It was mayhem. Traffic was backed up as far as I could see. Helicopters and planes flew low overhead dumping huge loads of bright red retardant. The smoke was like a raging animal, belching and billowing towards the sun, different shades of gray changing to ink black as the fire burned over different fuels. I drove north in the other direction from the choking traffic, heading towards Zuma beach. Then, I went to Point Dume Plaza for no other reason than to find something to do and get something to eat while I watched the fire from the back of the truck. Afterward, I returned to PCH and got in line with the others heading south and away from the head of the fire. Traffic was not moving and I had about an eighth of a tank of gas, so I pulled over to sit on the tailgate and watched. Smoke poured over the highway, turning the sky an eerie shade of reddish gray. Flames were visible behind the glittering houses of the rich who call that stretch home. The smoke and flames reflected in their enormous windows, and a hard offshore blew the palms towards the sea, making them look as if they were trying to uproot themselves and run from the approaching fire. It took something like three hours to get to the Malibu Pier. For reference, without traffic, it usually takes 15 minutes.
There, I ran into Gerry, who was parked behind a pharmacy in the shade. When I walked up, he was offering gasoline from his truck to a couple driving a brand new Mercedes. There was Gerry, ruffled and clad in his usual sweats/Crocs, offering a five gallon can of gas to a couple who looked as though they were made entirely of plastic and money. The woman had clearly done her makeup carefully before fleeing. “Where’s your aunt?” he asked me immediately. I told him I was hoping he knew. He did not.
We drank a beer in the shade and watched the traffic crawl by, a monster darkening the sky behind it. “We can sleep at a house I’ve been renovating tonight,” Gerry told me, looking up at the billowing column of smoke. That night, we split a case of beer and a bottle of two-buck rotgut sparkling wine. The house we were in is right on the beach at the bottom of Topanga Canyon, but it was basically ruined by a mudslide a decade ago. Gerry’s been slowly fixing it up for the owners. I slept on a chair cushion on the porch outside, looking at a night sky that was glowing red to the north. Fire trucks screamed by all night. At 4 a.m., I decided I’d had enough of not sleeping, so I got up and made the drive back into Malibu. It was surreal. Smoke drifted over PCH, completely devoid of traffic. The end of the Malibu Pier was invisible. The streets were completely empty, save for drifting smoke and the distant sound of wailing sirens. The sun rose eerily over the horizon, trying to burn through the acrid air, turning everything a hazy pastel orange. It was very pretty, in a dystopian sort of way.
By that time, I was getting worried about my aunt. My mum and brother were frantic as well. I searched for Red Cross shelters in the area while my mum assumed the worst. “She wouldn’t have left,” she told me. “You know how she is.” I do know how she is. There was, I thought at the time, a good chance that she’d stay at home with the cats, watching placidly from the couch with her legs folded beneath her, whispering to Emmy and Splotch as a roaring inferno burned the house down around her.
Finally, though, at around 11 a.m., my aunt called Gerry from a stranger’s cell phone. She had tried to sleep in her car the previous night and had made her way to a Red Cross cot in the Pacific Palisades, where the immensely nice volunteers were feeding her and tending to a bunch of other burnouts. It was a terrible scene—old people with oxygen masks, their shaking fingers grasping at the wrists of those sitting at their sides while a stunned silence sat on the gym, heavy as a cannonball dropped from a great height onto a wet lawn. Opportunistic homeless people plowed through boxes of bagels and drank gallons of coffee. My aunt was shaking and exhausted and her two old cats were residing in her car, so we thanked the Red Cross workers and headed for the office. That would be home for a few nights. Zach, the man steering this little ship adrift on the stormy seas of the internet, and his incredible fiancé Amy, gave us blankets, pillows, a blow-up mattress, and the use of the office for as long as we needed. It was life-saving. My aunt and I emptied the beer fridge and made small talk about anything other than the fact that we may suddenly be homeless. After two nights, we found a rental in the Pacific Palisades and moved in. Then we began to play that horrible waiting game while officials battled the fire.
My neighbors and I texted back and forth constantly over the next few days, trading rumors we’d heard, sending links back and forth, and asking about the dogs and horses that lived on our street. Thankfully, all of them survived, but almost none of the houses did. For six days we waited, staring at aerial photos taken from space of our neighborhood trying to piece together where our houses stood. One of our neighbors said she stayed long enough to watch my house and my aunt’s house below it burn to the ground, but I held onto a sliver of hope. Finally, after trying every canyon road over the five days, I found a route in. Skirting a police checkpoint, I headed up an old fire road that wound over the mountain and ended up at a tiny thread of cracked pavement that eventually linked up with our street. The scene from up there was devastating. Houses lay in ruins with shattered lives littered among their ashes. It wasn’t the big things that struck me. Not the burned out cars or the piles of broken bricks—instead, it was the unimportant bits of everyday life that lay among the wreckage. Torched wheelbarrows, a shoe with the sole burned off, a melted dog dish; it was all just a strange reminder of how much of our life remains at home when we leave.
My street looked like a war zone. It was one of the hardest hit in the area. Nearly all of the houses were entirely gone, a few remained partially standing, and only four are livable. As I pulled around the final corner to my little house, I was nervous. I knew it was gone, but I didn’t feel ready to face it.
I literally bled for that house. My sweat was on the boards and mixed in with the cement. It was my little sanctuary, full of birds and animals. A family of raccoons came by nearly every night, eventually trusting me enough to eat out of my hands. The largest, George Cooney, would sit in my lap while I drank martinis. It was quiet. My brain worked better there. I was happy on that porch at night, listening to the coyotes howl and the crickets chirp. A creek ran along the other side of the street, and in the summers, the frogs would keep me up at night, croaking to each other in the stifling heat about whatever it is frogs croak about. Sprawling oaks hid the house from the street, so I used to stumble out the french doors at night to stand on that porch naked and piss over the railing. “If you can’t piss on your property,” Gerry always says, “it’s time to move.”
There is nothing left where our houses stood. Gerry’s house is a smoking wreckage. It looks like a bomb hit it. The only thing left standing is an old chimney that was part of a house that burned down there in the 1950s, before Gerry lived there. He has nothing left except his ’81 Ford with a bent frame and his dog Becks.
The trees that lined the street are scorched, their burned limbs clawing upwards like skeletal arms. My aunt’s house is a pile of unrecognizable rubble, full of twisted metal. Her chimney still stands, looking forlornly over the property. It seems vaguely embarrassed. It’s as though the chimney is standing in a public place with no pants, the protective house that used to be around it is no longer there. Up the hill from her house is where my house stood. It’s gone now, my possessions turned to ashes. I can always get more—there weren’t too many things up there I can’t replace—but it’s a strange feeling to look at the entirety of your life reduced to a small pile of smoking rubble and warped glass. My surfboards and the rack they sat on vanished entirely, only a few palm-sized patches of cloth left over. My tools are reduced to only the metal that was in them, the bed I lay in at night for years a twisted jumble of springs. As I said, it’s odd to kick up a pile of dust and realize that was the jacket you were wearing last week. Here is a before (taken in 2016) and after:
As devastating as all they are, these fires are not unexpected. They will happen again, hopefully smaller and less destructive next time, but they will happen again. For now, though, people will rebuild. Their stooped backs will straighten, their shuffling gaits will quicken. The resilience of people in the face of disaster has always astounded me. The flowers will grow back. The ashes will blow away and the animals will return. The trees will grow their leaves again, unfurling them towards the sun. For the next few years, the air in the canyon will be filled with the sound of chop saws, impact drivers, and cement trucks as residents build their lives again.
Something happened today that struck me as vaguely symbolic of the general feeling around Malibu right now. A woman in the grocery store asked me whether I was a firefighter because my shoes were covered in ash. I informed her that no, I was not, but I had just returned from my house. She wondered whether it was still there, and I told her it wasn’t. This woman, a total stranger, burst into tears, then wrapped her arms around me. She asked me if there was anything she could do to help. We stood in the aisle, her shoulders heaving while she clung to me. A complete stranger standing in a grocery store, sobbing about a house that she had never seen or heard of before that moment.
We live in communities where we don’t often know our neighbors, but in times of tragedy, we are all in it together. That sounds corny, but it’s true. Whether it’s the Red Cross, a boat full of supplies, or a group of guys with guns protecting against looters, when push comes to shove, the vast majority of people are wonderful and willing to help strangers. Malibu will rebuild and we will go back to being strangers who don’t look at each other in passing eventually, but everyone, both the victims and those who escaped unscathed, will remember the people who helped along the way. It’s shitty right now, but the sun is coming back out and the smoke is clearing. There’s a saying I like that seems especially fitting: “When life throws you shit balls, you gotta pick up your shit bat.” Well, we’ve got our shit bats, and we’re swinging for the fences.