“Get Ready Malibu!”

Above, fixed wing aircraft combating the fire in Latigo Canyon, where many houses were lost. This view is from Guldimann’s backyard in Point Dume. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

I’ve lived in Malibu all my life.

One of earliest memories is the 1970 fire, my father holding me on his shoulders in front of the house, pointing to the glow on the horizon. He was the kind of person who refused to evacuate. I remember him on the roof, with the garden house, watching fires approach in 1978 and 1980. Every time, he helped the neighbors and my parents opened the house to evacuees from other parts of the community.
In 1993, during the Old Topanga Fire, he had to evacuate the family’s art gallery in the Malibu County Mart, but wouldn’t leave our house. In 2007, during the Corral Fire, when his ill health wouldn’t let him fight back he still didn’t want to leave, and we weathered that storm. He always felt confident that Point Dume, where we lived since the 1960s, wouldn’t burn—it never had.  He passed away in 2017. I’m glad he didn’t see what happened on November 9, when the Woolsey Fire swept through the Point.
The fire broke out on November 8 in Woolsey Canyon, near the old Santa Susana Field Laboratory on the edge of Simi Valley. I couldn’t sleep that night. I sat in front of the computer, watching the Woolsey Fire spread towards the Santa Monica Mountains for what felt like a lifetime. It really only took a few hours.
Just after 1 p.m. Fire watcher and photographer Bernie Deyo Tweeted: Update: #WoolseyFire , sounds like #LACOFD is preparing to issue mandatory evacs south of the 101 Freeway all the way to Mulholland Drive, AA thinks it may jump the freeway soon.”
“Get ready, Malibu,” I Tweeted. “If it jumps the freeway it will be headed our way, just like the 1978 Agoura-Malibu Fire, and the 1956 fire before it.”
It did, but it was even worse this time. The fire arrived in Malibu after wreaking havoc in Simi Valley, Oak Park, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, and Liberty Canyon, where it jumped the 101.
It burned through multiple canyons simultaneously, driven at first by 60 mph Santa Ana winds, and then by the wind generated by its own energy.
The mandatory evacuation went into effect just at 7 a.m., for Malibu, but there was no way to leave: Pacific Coast Highway was jammed from Santa Monica to Zuma Beach. My 86-year-old mother and I waited at home, car packed, dog at our feet, and cats stored in carriers, with the fire coming closer and closer. We left just after 2 p.m., when word reached us that more lanes on PCH were now open for southbound evacuees. The fire was no longer advancing down Kanan Dume, it was raging through our neighborhood.

It took four hours to reach my brother’s home in Seal Beach, and then an agonizing 12 more hours of not knowing what was happening. A week later, we are still fire refugees who still cannot return home because of the mandatory evacuation. We are still waiting to hear the fate of friends and neighbors. There is no official news, only scatted reports on Twitter or Nextdoor, and videos shot by more intrepid neighbors who hired boats to take them back in, or who made it through on back roads. We watch news helicopter flyover videos over and over again, searching for friends’ homes or the places where their homes once stood. The wait and the lack of information is like a physical pain, only alleviated by confirmation that another person has come through safely. Then it’s back to waiting.

My father would have stayed, the way other neighbors did, working all night to put out spot fires and protect as many houses as possible. I couldn’t do that, but I can write about the people like him, who, armed with garden hoses and buckets stayed behind this time and fought the fire. We’ve heard reports that there were few if any fire crews in our neighborhood other than this courageous neighbors. It’s thanks to them that we will have a home to return to, once the evacuation order is lifted. It’s still hard waiting, and not knowing, worrying about friends and neighbors—we know two houses at least burned on our street, and hundreds more nearby, but we will have a house to return to. Many, many families have lost there homes, in Malibu and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.

The losses are terrible, but I know our communities will rebuild in time. It’s just hard waiting.
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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