By Daniel Bercu
California exists as a target for catastrophe. Wildfires and mudslides erupt from hills that tremble with tectonic pressure while population growth strains the land. The constant action drew me west after graduating from Penn in 1987.
My new home lived up to its reputation for chaos. Within five years I experienced the Northridge earthquake, fires and floods in Malibu, and the Los Angeles riots. But the next 20 years passed almost quietly, until November 8, 2018.
My family woke that morning to news from Thousand Oaks, which lies eight sparsely settled miles from our home on the far western edge of inland Malibu, where a gunman had killed 14 people at the Borderline Bar and Grill. Not long after lunch, about 10 miles to our north, the Hill Fire ignited. Barely 20 minutes after that, this time 20 miles to our east—upwind—the Woolsey Fire broke out.
Our years in California have given us a complicated attitude toward fire. The Santa Ana winds whipped over the hillside our three children share with two huskies, seven chickens, three goats, and three sheep, carrying the telltale smell. Yet the following morning found me thinking about the consistency of my omelet. I can barely manage to change my Facebook status, let alone master the calculus of distinguishing a random blaze from a specific threat. So every Christmas we leave offerings on the doorstep of Fire Station 56—Paul Mitchell shampoo and homemade cookies we hope will protect us from the devil winds. And the rest of the year I make sure the captain’s mobile number is current in our iPhones.
At 8:30 a.m. we got the first text that all of Malibu was being evacuated. This clearing out of the entire city—which spans 27 miles of coastline—had never before been ordered. Yet I was still not overly concerned. We had evacuated several times in the past, only to see the winds change and the fire pass us by. And as the frequency of fires has accelerated, so has the technology underpinning our daily lives. Years ago we struggled to cram huge metal file cabinets filled with financial information into our cars. Now most materials exist on “the Cloud,” saving critical space and time when fleeing. Having packed a few old-fashioned documents—birth certificates, Social Security cards, passport—the night before, I felt little urgency now. I finished my omelet at 10:15 a.m., threw my wallet in the truck, and helped my wife and kids pack the three other cars.
The boys loaded up their electronics, surfboards, and some signed memorabilia. I am a minimalist and took nothing. Before fleeing we drove to the top of our mountain to have one last look around. A giant mushroom cloud of smoke, over 10,000 feet tall, blocked the sun. Fifty-foot flames danced atop the adjacent ridgeline.
Now I was scared.
Only two of us were licensed drivers. Our son Hunter was 14 and had never driven more than a few miles. Yet now we hurtled down the mountain, right into the line of cars heading north on Pacific Coast Highway. The PCH was stuffed full of traffic going both directions. This gridlock, it would soon become clear, was to prevent many fire engines from entering Malibu from either direction.
We were lucky. Our family’s exodus included a prolonged stay at the Santa Barbara Hilton, which threw open its doors to all evacuees and their pets. Our 100-pound huskies had the time of their lives. They destroyed planters of rich foliage. They drank out of fountains. They drank from toilets. They ate room service—only some of it ordered by us. From the beach we could see fire on the mountains 50 miles away. But we strained for information.
The Hill Fire, which had initially spread with frightening speed, was soon contained. But the slow-starting Woolsey Fire spun out of control, racing through 96,000 acres before meeting the Pacific Ocean. It was almost impossible to get any news. All access points to the city were blocked by California Highway Patrol deputies. The electric grid had been fried. Cell phone towers had melted. I started a group text with our six closest neighbors, one of whom—a former Blackwater military contractor—had stayed to protect his home.
He was not the only one.
Cal Fire records would later show that more that 3,200 personnel were deployed against the Woolsey Fire, commanding 418 fire engines and 19 helicopters. Yet in Malibu it felt like no one had turned up at all. The Hill Fire had sucked up many first responders. More were dispatched to the even deadlier Camp Fire, which started the same day and reduced the town of Paradise to cinders. Meanwhile Pepperdine University had been surrounded by fire and the dean had ordered all 4,000 students to “shelter in place,” spreading firefighters thinner still.
So people like our neighbor put themselves between their homes and the flames. Malibu may be synonymous with spectacular wealth, but the “Canyon Folk” who inhabit the nooks and crannies on the land side of the PCH are a world away from the multimillion-dollar manses perched above the shoreline—buffered from danger both by the highway and in some cases private firefighters. So when Jeremiah Redclay noticed coyotes fleeing on his way to work as a Hollywood set-builder, and then watched fire jump the eight-lane 101 freeway, he turned back homeward toward Latigo Canyon. For years he had attacked the grounds around his stucco home with a weed-whacker and a shovel, trying to create a 200-foot-wide fuel-free buffer around his family and his second livelihood—restoring rare oil paintings.
As his wife and children bundled possessions into their cars, Jeremiah sandwiched a 14th-century Titian between several abstract-expressionist canvases by Arshile Gorky in the bed of his Ford F-350 pickup. Soon he and his son Elijah were helping their neighbor, Hollywood stuntman and City Councilman Jay Wagner, try to saturate his own home and grounds with water as the next house over exploded into flames. Convinced that he alone could save his home, Wagner would not leave. He would end up in intensive care at UCLA Medical Center after his house burned to the ground. Jeremiah and Elijah would lose the paintings when a drifting ember incinerated the lot, but they helped save several of their other neighbors’ homes along with their own—though smoke damage drove them to sleep on the ground outside of it for four nights.
In the midst of California’s most devastating wildfire season in living memory, they epitomized a new reality that is bound to shape how people will respond the next time we smell smoke: Leave and your house is gone. Stay and you might ensure its existence.
Our family is among the lucky ones. The hills are charred black, we need a generator for electricity, and our kids are still without a functioning high school, but our home was spared. Yet our good fortune fills me with ambivalence, given that so many others lost all they had. A layer of survivor’s guilt has been deposited atop the ordinary Jewish variety—along with a creeping dread about what the future may hold. The good news is that only two people lost their lives in the firestorm. The bad news lies in the lesson many residents may take from the limited death toll. When the next fire comes, hundreds may stay to defend their turf. I don’t know whether I will be one of them.
And fire is by no means the only menace in this dramatic landscape that continues to hold me in its thrall. As I tuck the kids into bed, the drumbeat of rain starts to pelt our glass windows. A steady trickle of mud flows into our street.
Dan Bercu C’87 W’87 lives in Malibu, California.