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An aerial photo of the remains of the home of Dave Teel, Nicole Fisher and their family. (Photo Submitted)
What remains of the home of Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson, who operate the American Tortoise Rescue on their property in Malibu Park.
A photo taken by Malibu resident Alexis Bohas, who with many other residents sought safety at Zuma Beach Friday, Nov. 9, as evacuation was beginning.
Staff Report
7:59 am PST November 13, 2018

They called it the “Ex-husband/dead-wife storage locker,” as an attempt at humor while carrying heavy burdens.

In it, Malibu couple Dave Teel and Nicole Fisher stored keepsakes from their exes so that one day, they could pass those items to their children. 

County regulations, however, forced Teel, who is a Surfside News freelance photographer, and Fisher to give up the fire-strong shipping container, which was on their property when they bought it 11 years ago, Teel said.

The replacement, temporary structure was one of 1,000-plus buildings destroyed by the Woolsey Fire. 

Living on Thrift Road, just southeast of Calamigos Ranch and Malibu Wines, Teel and Fisher lead a blended family of five children, only one of whom was with them at the time of evacuation. 

The family, Teel said, lives near a retired fireman, who would always warn them that if a wildfire jumped the 101 freeway around Cheseboro, it was a matter of “when, not if” it would approach their little valley community. 

News of a brush fire in Woolsey Canyon broke on Thursday morning, Nov. 8, and Teel said his family wasted little time. 

“My wife, Nicole, said we should go,” he said. “I wasn’t sure yet, but she said she had a bad feeling and we needed to go now.”

So, the three loaded up three cars full of necessities and personal effects and drove to a friend’s home in Malibu West. There, they watched the news overnight Thursday and sure enough, the fire jumped the 101 near Cheseboro.

Early Friday, the family took the three cars down to Zuma Beach, where Dave realized at the house was still one car, that of daughter Hayley Gorak, a student at Tulane University.

Teel briefly returned to the home, packed up Hayley’s car and for a moment, stopped to appreciate the abnormal atmosphere around 8 a.m.

“I have the freakiest picture of the sky around the canyon all orange and smoky, but above it was clear, calm,” Teel said. 

Teel estimates that between 9 or 9:30 that morning is when the canyon burned, taking out his home and many of his neighbors’ homes. 

With the four cars, Teel said, the family made its way to Nicole’s mother’s home in Ventura, where they received photos from a neighbor confirming what they knew. The family home was gone, along with 13 other homes out of 23 in the small neighborhood. 

“It was traumatic,” he said. “We had so many cry-wolf episodes up there in canyon: We’d back cars in and load them up and wait and nothing would happen. When it finally did happen, you said, ‘Oh I wish would have taken this or that.’ We got some stuff, but everything else gone.”

During past scares, Teel said, a fire official or sheriff’s deputy would come door to door to make sure everyone is OK and prepared. 

This time, he said, nobody came, not even when the fire did.

“I think the thing I’m most upset about is the same thing a lot of people are,” Teel said. “The firemen were spread so thin that they couldn’t help with anyone. ... Malibu West was burning and I saw the first fire trucks arrive 40 minutes after. It was really way too late.”

Officials have said that much of the early response to the fire was tied up in “life-saving” ventures, as they said many who stayed in Malibu were calling 911 and in danger. Add that to limited resources, and fires burned through many Malibu homes without the presence of first responders.

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THE FIRE THAT CONQUERED 'FIRE-READY'

Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson thought they were fire-ready. 

Their Malibu Park home was covered with fire-resistant Hardie board siding and fireproof paint, and the family’s eight sheep kept the family's brush well-maintained.

Just before 6 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, a neighbor pounded on their door and told them to be ready to evacuate. 

“That gave us a lot of time to get ready,” Tellem said. “ ... Marshall and I have been training for this and have our go bags ready, but the fact of the matter is, when it’s really happening you start to forget things.”

Several hours later, with the Woolsey Fire steadily making its way toward Malibu, the husband-and-wife couple, who runs American Tortoise Rescue and has more than 100 turtles in their home and backyard, gathered their three cats and more than 35 turtles. 

Tellem added more water to the backyard ponds and attempted to wrangle chickens and more turtles and tortoises, to no avail.

As Tellem and her husband drove to Zuma Beach, she took comfort in the fact that the turtles who stayed behind either had a pond surface to duck under or concrete houses topped with more Hardie board, offering a fire-resistant shelter.

At Zuma, Tellem and Thompson helplessly watched their neighborhood and much of Point Dume go up in flames.

The next morning, they were able to briefly return home to assess the damage, and it left them stunned.

Their house and many houses around them were gone, but their beloved animals were largely unharmed — eight sheep and seven turtles were killed, a small number in the grand scope of their operation, but still a tough one for Tellem to swallow.

A statue of Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, still stood in the home’s front yard.

“I think he protected our animals,” Tellem said.

Also unharmed was a plastic container of chicken seed, allowing Tellem to feed the animals once more before heading to Culver City, where her 44-year-old son, John Tellem, has opened up his home.

“My son is a saint,” Tellem said. “He has just been taking care of us and my other children have been bringing us clothes.”

One day, Tellem said they to rebuild in Malibu, but, for now, the couple and its animal companions are resting their heads in Culver City. And despite the family’s monumental loss, Tellem remains optimistic. 

“The only thing I care about is the animals,” Tellem said. “The rest of it is replaceable.” 

American Tortoise Rescue has launched a fundraiser on its Facebook page. As of Tuesday, Nov. 13, the campaign had raised $6,630. 

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'TOWN ON A HILL' IN RUINS

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

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 Monday evening, Nov. 12, had spread across 93,000 acres and through five days was 30 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 is still burning as of Monday.

At least two people are dead and more than 430 structures were destroyed by the fire, according to emergency-response officials who have been hosting twice-daily media briefings.

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.”

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'FROM PEACE TO EXPLOSION'

It didn’t take long on Friday for the wildfire to jump Pacific Coast Highway in multiple locations, including in western Malibu near the Malibu Bay Club.

Guy Blews — of the Malibu Bay Club, an oceanside gated community of condominiums and rentals — 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," he recounted in an email to the Surfside News, "smoke in the air, soot in my eyes, embers from the husks of the palm trees flying all around and hitting me, and the rushing noise of the deep red flames from the next door lot throwing off intense heat, the palm trees all around started lighting on fire which made the situation seem hopeless.

"It went from peace to explosion in a few minutes.”

The fire department asked Blews — who had watered down the units, 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.”

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52 PRECIOUS YEARS IN POINT DUME

Fifty-two years of memories at 6729 Dume Drive went up in smoke when the Woolsey Fire arrived.

Despite losing countless antiques, a classic camper truck, a 2010 Merecedes, surfboards and much, much more, the homeowners, Ida Mae Corman and Dick Corman, are thankful to be alive.

“What we prepared for was that big earthquake,” Dick wrote in an email to the Surfside News. “What a shock now we are waiting in a hotel in Ventura for a chance to go through the ashes.”

The Cormans bought a metal detector and await the OK to return to the property where their home once stood.

“The answer to all of this [is to] hang in there and keep on moving,” Dick wrote. “Life is precious and you only have keep [to] breathing.”

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RESIDENTS QUESTION FIRE RESPONSE, CITY REGULATIONS

During a town hall meeting with emergency personnel Sunday, Nov. 11, some 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.

“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 by doing things such as getting water from pools and fighting the fires on their own.”

Stern noted that he grew up on Point Dume and that he shared the frustrations of citizens.

“I won’t rest until we get answers,” he said. “Although we have the best firefighters and first responders in the world, bar none, we have to take a serious look at what happened, but this was unprecedented and we had a 14-mile wall of flames racing down the mountain at close to 100 miles an hour at times.” 

Citizens also expressed frustration that they were not receiving information about when they can re-enter their homes and how they can start to rebuild, which Steven Weinberg lamented would be a more-difficult-than-usual undertaking if local government does not lax its rigorous regulatory stystem.

“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. “The problem going forward is that the City must deal with the rebuilding of this magnitude and it will have to adjust from the norm where it takes eight months just to get a pool permit. That process must be expedited because, otherwise, there will be a huge amount of people who will be homeless for a long time.”

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EVACUEES WAIT FOR ANSWERS AT LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL 

As fires raged and Malibuites were ordered to evacuate Friday, Nov. 9, many headed to Palisades Charter High School, where the American Red Cross opened an evacuation center.

“From the minute we arrived at this Red Cross center, I was impressed by the level of hospitality and the graciousness of the people in the Palisades donating all this food and clothing,” said Anneliese Knur, who has lived in Malibu’s Serra Retreat for 54 years. 

Malibu resident Dr. Kyo Paul Jhin, who lives three miles west of Pepperdine University on Pacific Coast Highway, heartily agreed.

The evacuation center did more than provide shelter and aid for Jhin. It helped him find his wife. 

As Jhin was evacuating Malibu, detours did not allow him to pick up his wife. For the evacuation center, he called law enforcement for help. Dr. Jeff Harris, who has lived in Malibu for more than four decades, overheard Jhin’s phone calls and told Jhin that he knew his neighbor, Alan Armstrong, and phoned Armstrong to ask him for help.

“Alan Armstrong walked over to Dr. Jhin’s house, knocked on the door and found his wife safe and sound,” Harris said.

Early in the afternoon, U.S. Rep. Ted W. Lieu came by to offer evacuees support and to distribute forms to those who have been negatively impacted by the fire.

“I’m here to provide support, to applaud the Red Cross for their excellent efforts and to tell the citizens about how to start the process of asking for help,” Lieu said. “Our office can help with things so simple as replacing a driver’s license or a passport.”

For information on assistance, email Lieu.casework@mail.house.gov or call (323) 651-1040.

A wave of emotions pervaded the high school gym, where the evacuees gathered around the television. 

Malibuites yearning for news about their home, their neighborhood and their world had to wait for final answers.

On Saturday afternoon, the City announced that a red flag warning has been extended through Tuesday, Nov. 13. The evacuees looked up, some with a dazed look approaching shock, others, veterans of fires in Malibu over the years, with a knowing expression. 

“I just want to know if my home is OK,” Malibuite Joan Kay said. 

Kay has lived in Monte Nido for years. There were no clear answers and evacuees brace for more. 

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EVACUATION GRIDLOCK 

The fire raging down the mountainside was in plain view Friday morning, Nov. 9, for Malibu residents who live above and below Pacific Coast Highway, which at the time was at a near standstill as residents tried to evacuate the area.

Many of the residents, like Alexis Bohas and her dog, Gordon,  found their way to the parking lot of Zuma Beach.

"There's really no way out. PCH is a trap," Bohas said. "I'd rather be somewhere where I can move around and if I need to, I can always go in the water."

At Zuma Beach, Bohas said there are currently about 100 people and a number of animals, including goats and horses. She said there is a horse corral set up on the beach.