Life in the Burn Zone

Suzanne Guldimann during her presentation. Photo by Flavia Potenza

Suzanne Guldimann is no stranger to wildfire. Growing up in Point Dume, Malibu, she remembers her father standing on the roof of their house with a garden hose when fires approached. The only fire she recalls him evacuating the family was the 1970 Wright Fire.

As an author of ten books, a photographer, local naturalist and historian, Guldimann, who is also Associate Editor for the Messenger Mountain News, was invited to present a photographic chronicle of the Woolsey Fire at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Center at King Gillette Ranch on January 25.

Carried by Guldimann’s narrative, her spectacular photographs began with the towering flames that demanded she, her 87-year-old mother, and their animals evacuate, albeit along the gridlocked Pacific Coast Highway, as the fire raged toward the beach.

The presentation carried a rapt audience through photos of the devastation of the burn zone, and a hike with National Park Service ranger, Mark Mendelson, two weeks after the fire was contained, to look for signs of life. Hope, especially in nature, does spring eternal. What they found were tiny green shoots of Chaparral yucca, soap plant, the dreaded invasive arundo, and unimaginable just weeks before, a charred skeleton of a tree was bringing forth promise of new life from its root.

Many in the audience likely experienced the Woolsey Fire and were so thoroughly engaged in the story, they may not have noticed their own sighs and quiet utterances that emanated as they recalled the event. As the narrative developed with photos of the following spring and ensuing super bloom that can only follow a fire, gasps, oohs, and ahhs flowed throughout the room.

In closing, Guldimann displayed side-by-side photos of utter desolation of the burn zone before, and breathtaking renewal just months and a year later. The feeling in the room seemed to shift, transformed from simple interest and curiosity into what may have been, for some, another step toward healing from an unimaginable tragedy.


Suzanne Guldimann’s home was saved by neighbors who stayed to keep embers and hot spots at bay. Her family was able to return ten days later. It took longer for utilities to return, but they had a home to return to.


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