Saving Paradise Cove: When Neighbors Faced down the Flames

Above, party for the Paradise Cove fire brigade. Photo by Sandie Haverick

NEIGHBORS PROTECTED HOMES OF EVACUATED NEIGHBORS. THEY WEREN’T GOING TO LET PARADISE COVE BURN AGAIN.

It isn’t every day that a preschool director fights a wildfire. Yet on November 9, as the Woolsey Fire swept toward Malibu, Paradise Cove resident Shari Latta sprang into action. The longtime director of Children’s Creative Workshop on Point Dume, Latta watched towering, roiling clouds of smoke obscure the sky and mountains, before traffic cleared well enough for her to make it home to the cove. By the time she arrived late Friday afternoon, the firestorm appeared to be headed toward the beach.

“I wanted to protect my home and, you know, the way to protect my home is to help protect the homes around me,” Latta, 59, recalled in a phone interview. “There was no question about what to do.”

Across the beachfront community that Friday night, Latta and a couple dozen of her neighbors jumped into the fray. They faced down the flames, embers, and hot spots with such effectiveness that not one structure in the cove was lost to fire. “I’ve been in Malibu fifty-five years,” Latta said, “so I’ve been through every fire. This was, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

TAILGATING THE APOCALYPSE

On the night of November 8, as the Woolsey Fire ripped through the Santa Monica Mountains, the manager of the Paradise Cove Beach Café had a lot to worry about. With a home at Malibou Lake and his family’s iconic restaurant in Malibu, Tim Morris, 22, realized in the wee hours of the morning, that both his home and family business might be threatened by the same wildfire. He evacuated with his dog at 4 a.m. for his parents’ home in Brentwood, after the wildfire jumped the Ventura Freeway near Liberty Canyon Road.

Getting by on very little sleep that night, Morris drove to Paradise Cove early November 9 to defend his family’s legacy.

That morning at the Cove, Morris, alongside the café’s president of operations, Pablo de la Torre, and the restaurant’s head of maintenance, kept the restaurant open as a de facto evacuation center, helped by a large generator. The café became a bustling refuge for people who delayed evacuation because of highway gridlock and for those who chose to remain.

“We Malibu people, we’re stubborn as hell. We’re not gonna go anywhere. Some of these guys were tailgating the apocalypse,” Morris quipped. “They were sitting around cracking a Coors Light, literally watching the world burn.”

Weeks later in the comfort of his living room, Cove resident Dick Haverick, 75, a retired engineer with ABC, recalled the scene inside the restaurant that day.

“People came from all over Paradise Cove, and different parts of Malibu, who had been burnt out and evacuated,” Haverick said. “Everybody brought their pets into the lobby. [There were] dogs and cats, and two different people had birds on their shoulders. It sounded like a pet shop.”

As flames descended into Ramirez Canyon later that day, Morris climbed atop a traffic-light pole to get a better view and saw propane tanks explode as the wildfire advanced.

After Morris and de la Torre made sure that folks were safe inside, they turned their attention to the approaching firestorm. “There were about 12 guys with us who were ready to take the fight to the fire,” Morris said. “So, we got the firehose. We cranked the hydrants and by around six o’clock we were on the offense.”  

IN THE DARK, WITH GARDEN HOSES, THE BATTLE RAGED

The fierce defenders, including Latta, launched a two-pronged strategy to protect the Cove. With a fire hose they attacked the field ablaze across the highway and, with as many garden hoses as they could find, prestaged them across patios, balconies, and yards.

“We went across PCH with our hose and started working the field on the other side of the Malibu Villas and started putting everything out there,” Morris said. “The palm trees were just like sparklers. They shot out embers like crazy.”

Before long, the fire had leapt across the highway. Embers lit up trees and ignited a deep carpet of pine needles on the hillside along Paradise Cove Road. The fire then tracked along the hill and burned all the way to the beach, threatening the café.

Shoveling dirt on hot spots, stomping on embers, and extinguishing flames with hoses, about 25 to 30 residents battled the blazes, according to estimates from those who participated. Working individually and in small crews, residents protected property. As the night wore on, those fighting flames in the lower section and on PCH became aware of others defending the upper section of the community. Communicating with others out of sight in other areas of the cove was impossible.

“When you were at the top of the road, you didn’t know what was going on at the bottom of the road,” Latta recalled. “It was so isolated.”

Late that night, a strike team arrived to douse the largest blazes. Haverick said a fire unit set to work at his house after 11 p.m. while another was activated at the end of the street. A film on his cell phone, time-stamped at 11:22 p.m., shows a thick arc of water from a fire hose aiming for the blazing trees on the slope behind his home. The fire fighter was perched on top of his roof. Some residents reported that at least five engines worked in the Cove late that night.

Residents, meanwhile, continued to smother hot spots, and the fire still raged “all over the place” when the engines drove away, according to Morris. Latta recalled that she, Morris, and neighbor Simeon Sturges dragged the heavy fire hose back up the road after 1 a.m., still “stomping and spraying” embers and spot fires. The cold night air did not bother Morris as much as his inadequate foot gear. “I’m running around in Vans and jeans and a T-shirt, doing all this, and it was cold; I’d have given anything for a pair of boots,” he said.

Some residents grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep, but the respite was short lived. At 4:30 a.m. Haverick’s dog started barking when a neighbor appeared on his back deck and opened his bedroom door.

“He points up the hill, and I look around, and there’s little spot fires all over the place,” Haverick said. “These dried trees are hanging over there, and some of ‘em had been on fire hours before, so everything’s really dry and ready to explode.”

His neighbor left, and Haverick got dressed, grabbed a flashlight, and went outside, where he encountered the prestaged garden hoses. He joined the battle, drowning spot fires in the predawn and well past sunup and into the next day. A long-dead tree stump on a slope behind Haverick’s home proved especially difficult to quell, requiring some acrobatics to rig a hose so it would reach across the creek and into the hollowed-out trunk.

Dick Haverick grabbed a pre-staged fire hose and attacked “little hot spots all over the place.” Photo by Gina K. Thornburg

THE PARADISE COVE FIRE BRIGADE 2018

Although Cal Fire officials admonish residents for staying behind to defend their homes, it seems that Paradise Cove would have burned without such spontaneously coordinated efforts.

By Saturday, November 10, the main thrust of the fire was over, but continued vigilance was needed for flare-ups. Morris and others stayed through Wednesday night to make sure the hot spots were suppressed.  

“There’s a community here,” Morris said. “I’ve known these people my whole life. I go surfing with them. I go fishing with them. They’re family. … Honestly, I just did what I would have hoped anyone would do because it’s just something that needed to be done.”

As news trickled out via phone, text, and social media of Paradise Cove residents’ determined stand against the Woolsey Fire, evacuated residents were amazed and grateful.

A few weeks after the smoke had cleared, the defenders of the Cove were honored at a community celebration organized by the owners of Paradise Cove and the restaurant.

“They put together a big thank-you, a wonderful meal,” Haverick said.

About 300 people showed up at the party in the clubhouse, he recalled. “It was packed with everybody we know.” A T-shirt printed with the words “Paradise Cove Fire Brigade 2018” was given to those who had risked much to save much during what was likely the wildest night of their lives.

“I’m not sure how to ever repay them,” wrote Taylor Beall, 25, in an e-mail. A cove resident since his preschool days, he is a former student of Latta’s. Beall had evacuated for several weeks until after professional cleaners eradicated smoke odors from inside his home.

Although repayment is not necessary, perhaps it comes anyway, in the form of little gestures that bind Paradise Cove residents together. After cell phone service was restored, Morris learned that many friends, as well as people he had not spoken to in a few years, had been reaching out. The outpouring of support he received was overwhelming, he said.

“I was just like, wow, there’s really a lot of people that care about the business, care about me, care about everyone’s well-being up here in Paradise Cove. That was a very humbling thing.”

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