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A burned out car near a home above Malibu High School that perished in the Woolsey Fire. (Suzy Demeter/Malibu Surfside News)
Staff Report
7:52 am PST November 15, 2018

(Editor's note: This story's original publish date was Nov. 9. It was changed as the story was updated to fit system parameters.)

Nikki and Ethan White talked with their neighbors about buying an empty lot in their Malibu neighborhood to open up a pizzeria.

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That way, Ethan said, they’d never have to leave.

“The community is amazing, and we were in love with our little town on a hill,” he said. “It felt like an Italian village. ... We spent so much time together.”

Most of that community, of “20 to 25 houses” on Old Chimney Road near Latigo Road, Ethan said, was burned to the ground by the Woolsey Fire, which as of Sunday morning, Nov. 18, had spread across 98,000 acres and through eight days was 88 percent contained.

“I counted six homes still standing,” he said.

The Whites’ story is a common one being told by Malibuites reeling from the effects of the wildfire, which initiated in Woolsey Canyon near Simi Valley on Thursday, Nov. 8, and burned for nearly two weeks. The fire was reported as fully contained around 6:30 p.m.  Wednesday, Nov. 21. 

At least three people are dead — two in Malibu — and at least 1,600 structures were destroyed by the fire, according to emergency-response officials who have been sending frequent media reports.

“Although we’ve lost [a lot] of structures, we’ve estimated that there are over 5,700 structures that are still here,”  Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said Monday morning, Nov. 12. “ ... We had all available firefighters doing all that they can to protect all the structures they could.”

PHOTO GALLERY: WOOLSEY FIRE DEVASTATES MALIBU

A mandatory evacuation was put in place Friday midday, and while Nikki White and the family’s two young children, ages 5 and 2, evacuated Malibu, Ethan stayed in an effort to prepare the home, as best he could, for the raging fire burning down the hillside.

Later that day, Ethan left his property and joined many neighbors along Latigo Canyon Road and MacGuire Drive.

From there, he watched flames invade Old Chimney Road. Thick smoke shielded the burning, and he could only imagine what was happening to his home.

“We were talking about all the good times we had there, our kids learning to ride bikes, all the memories,” he said, fighting back tears. “We sat there watching our houses burn, almost like sitting around a campfire. It was surreal. Totally unworldly.”

Two days later, on Sunday, Nov. 11, Ethan returned to the site where his home once stood.

“There was nothing,” he said. “I had a lot of tools — solid hammers, sledgehammers; They are not there. They are just gone. ... The contents of our house were reduced to dust. There was nothing recognizable. Not a thing.”

The swift-burning fire burned out of control for almost two days, authorities said, and with four other active California wildfires, regional and state resources were stretched thin.

As of Monday, state regulators were investigating if Southern California Edison had anything to do with the fire's origin, because two minutes before the fire broke out and in the same location — E Street and Alpha Road in Ventura County — the power company reported an issue with equipment in a formal notice

No determination has been made and neither the investigating commission nor SoCal Edison immediately returned requests for comment.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department confirmed Saturday, Nov. 10, that two “severely burned” bodies were found in Malibu, located in a stopped vehicle on a long, narrow driveway in the 33000 block of Mulholland Highway.

The identities of the victims have not yet been confirmed. No other deaths of Malibu residents were confirmed as of Monday, Nov. 19.

A third body was found Tuesday, Nov. 13, in a burned-out home in Agoura Hills. Authorities believe the death is related to the Woolsey Fire.

RESOURCES AND DONATION SUGGESTIONS AMID WOOLSEY FIRE

Malibu Councilman Skylar Peak informed media members Sunday, Nov. 11, that fellow councilmember Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner was hospitalized after the fire burned Wagner’s home near Latigo Canyon.

Wagner’s daughter, Ava, told residents at a Tuesday, Nov. 13 informational meeting that her father suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, but was out of the hospital with a multi-week road to recovery ahead.

“He will recover as this community recovers,” she said.

Peak also told the media that by his count more than 50 Point Dume homes were lost to the fire, but damage-assessment teams had yet to survey much of Malibu.

The fire became a legitimate threat to Malibu when it jumped the 101 Freeway at three locations Thursday evening, Nov. 8, with winds at roughly 30 mph at the time.

LA County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said wind gusts and visibility issues made it difficult to use aircraft to battle the fire, especially when the a “wind event” returned Sunday-Tuesday, Nov. 11-13.

As the fire progressed, it burned 83 percent of national-parks land in the Santa Monica Mountains, parks officials said. It found Pacific Coast Highway early Friday evening.

It didn’t take long for it to jump the highway near Kanan Dume and in western Malibu, near the Malibu Bay Club.

Guy Blews — of the Malibu Bay Club, an oceanside gated community of condominiums and rentals on the western-most end of Malibu — watched the flames leap across PCH and ignite brush that then ignited a series of palm trees within the club.

Blews said he worked to squelch the fire burning a pair of palm trees, but before he knew it, the fire was surrounding both him and the Malibu Bay Club.

“With the wind blowing in a tornado, smoke in the air, soot in my eyes, embers from the husks of the palm trees flying all around and hitting me ... the palm trees all around started lighting on fire which made the situation seem hopeless,” Blews wrote in an email to the Surfside News. “It went from peace to explosion in a few minutes.”

The fire department asked Blews — who had watered down the condos, many cars and himself — to leave. When he returned 24 hours later, he said, multiple units were destroyed.

“It was like a war zone,” he wrote. “Everything in monochrome black, grey and white.

“But luckily, and most importantly, everyone is safe.”

Blews made sure to point out club resident Bud Robinson, who Blews said stayed “the longest fighting the flames and putting himself in extreme danger for the properties.”

VICTIM, SURVIVOR AND EVACUEE ACCOUNTS

City of Malibu Media Information Officer Matt Myerhoff said that other areas of Malibu that were significantly affected by the wildfire include Point Dume; Malibu Park, along Morning Side Drive in west Malibu; and near Trancas Canyon. Local photos and video confirmed damage along Kanan Dume Road and Malibu West, as well.

“I have been in Malibu all day and I have seen the damage, and it is devastating,” Peak told residents Sunday evening, Nov. 11. “I think we have lost at least 170 homes. ... It is like Armageddon.”

The fire doubled in size from about 35,000 acres to 70,000 acres overnight Friday to Saturday.

“It was a tough night,” said Osby, at a press conference Saturday, Nov. 10. “... I can tell you from our perspectives we did lose a lot of homes, but kudos to the firefighters, we also saved thousands of homes.”

The City of Malibu is operating an emergency information and resource website, www.malibucity.org/woolsey, for those affected by the Woolsey wildfire and those looking to help.

The website includes the most recent confirmed news on the fire, including size and scope, and updated information about evacuation centers, animal evacuation, and road closures.

At first, residents used eastbound PCH to evacuate and were encouraged to avoid canyon roads, which were eventually closed that day. PCH was made into four lanes midday Friday after traffic congestion caused severe delays as evacuees left town.

In its initial report, the City of Malibu reported the Woolsey Fire jumped the 101 at Liberty Canyon Road and Chesebro Road. This was a similar track as the devastating Agoura-Malibu fire of 1978, when 25,000 acres were consumed and more than 200 buildings were destroyed, according to Surfside News reporter Suzanne Guldimann, a longtime Malibu resident who is authoring a book on the history of Malibu.

In the 1993 Old Topanga Fire, 16,500 acres were covered, and the fire claimed three residents’ lives and 388 structures in Malibu.

A large animal evacuation center was immediately established at the Zuma Beach parking lot in Malibu and at Hansen Dam Equestrian Center, 11127 Orcas Ave., Lake View Terrace, according to the city.

The Los Angeles County Waterworks is encouraging residents to stop irrigation to save resources for firefighters.

Residents question officials

Malibu residents shared their concerns with local and regional officials during an informational meeting hosted by State Sen. Henry Stern, who grew up in Malibu, Sunday evening, Nov. 11, at Taft Charter High School.

Malibu residents voiced vociferous frustration about first responders being understaffed, stating there were not enough patrol cars to warn residents about the surging fires and not enough first responders to fight them.

While officials have pleaded residents to heed evacuation orders, multiple residents said many of those who stayed are the ones who saved their homes. Authorities, however, have reiterated that doing so is unsafe and can hinder emergency response.

“There was no one from anywhere on Point Dume to fight the fire and there was no one on Busch Drive,” said Frances Murray, a resident of Point Dume. “I am so furious, and the damage would have been even worse if some brave citizens had not remained back and personally saved many structures.”

Stern noted that he grew up on Point Dume and said he will seek answers, but pointed out the fire was “unprecedented.”

Area residents also expressed frustration that they were not receiving information about when they can re-enter their homes and how they can start to rebuild.

“The real problem is that were are no real information sources and that resources were scarce when the fire happened,” attendee Steven Weinberg told Malibu Surfside News.

Chris Thompson, a representative for Southern California Edison, stated that a brief respite in winds had allowed the utility to conduct an initial damage assessment, as power outages in Woolsey Fire’s coverage area are down to 9,000 homes.

Thompson added at least 70 power poles must be replaced and many downed poles would necessitate helicopter and ground crews coordinating replacement installations.

Residents also inquired about mail, which Stern said will be held at the post office, and about schools’ efforts to help students who need to continue their studies.

“We are trying to coordinate academics for the students,” SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati said. “A lot of activities, such as seniors talking to colleges, was ongoing when this happened and we are making every effort to facilitate those activities continuing on.”

Stern, who grew up in Malibu, was positive about the community’s future.

“I believe in the resilience of Malibu and although our resilience and faith will be strongly tested, I believe Malibu will come back stronger than before,” Stern said.