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Malibu West volunteer fire brigade member Dermot Stoker (right) speaks with Susanna Roth and David Hays on Nov. 12. The brigade and other Malibu West residents stayed behind and took fire-fighting efforts into their own hands. Photos by Suzy Demeter/22nd Century Media
Malibu resident Wendy Sweetmore organizes supplies for those who chose not to evacuate and instead stayed in Malibu West to fight fires. Residents had access to the Malibu West Beach Club, where supplies were stashed.
Though more than 200 homes in Malibu West survived the Woolsey Fire, 21 were lost, according to residents of the neighborhood.
Lauren Coughlin, Editor
7:59 am PST November 21, 2018

They stayed behind — and, because they did, many Malibu West residents can return home.

The community has not been spared, though, with an estimated 21 homes lost out of 237 homes, despite valiant efforts from the Malibu West volunteer fire brigade and other residents.

The brigade was formed in 2012 with the thought that if and when a big fire came, resources would be spread too thin. That year, the crew gained 10 members: Chris Spiros, Mark Wetton, John Hathorn, Dom Fote, Carey Hayes, Mike Downing, Armando Petretti, Merlin Clarke, Tim Bice and Dermot Stoker. The men had the gear and had gone through the motions, training under retired Santa Monica Battalion Chief Walt Shirk.

When the fire roared into Malibu on Nov. 9, several residents — including newly elected councilmember Mikke Pierson and his 23-year-old son, Emmet, Christine and David Hays, Laurie, Monty and Tim Biglow, Erik Rondell, and Greg Corinth — stayed back, too. Christine Hays, event manager at the Malibu West Beach Club, opened the facility to community members, offering a safe shelter with amenities and supplies.

Together, they fought a fire for which they never could have been prepared. 

“When you have it advancing on you, even though you’ve got a fire hose in your hand ... the roar, the sound — there’s nothing like it,” Stoker said. “You can’t produce it any other way than witnessing that firsthand.”

Pierson said the fire leapt by 500 yards at a time once it exploded over the ridge, and they knew they had to save the top two homes in the neighborhood to slow the fire’s path. So they did.

“We didn’t know who else was doing what,” Pierson said. “We just had our escape plan and saved houses we could and lost the ones we couldn’t.”

Fote was on his roof, hosing down his property, when he caught sight of three separate lines of fire heading his way, including what he described as a “hurricane of fire, coming like a tornado” from the direction of Malibu Park.

“Pieces of houses [are] flying through it and out of it on fire,” Fote said. “ ... The only thing I’ve ever seen like that has been on some Weather Channel special.”

Corinth, who also spent time on his roof with garden hoses, called the fire response in Malibu West “horrible” and said he interacted with firefighters in two idle engines, one on Paseo Canyon Drive and one on Trancas Canyon Road.

“They literally ignored me then told me to move on,” Corinth wrote in an email to the Surfside. “The one on Trancas said they have it under control, then turned around in no rush and headed down PCH.” 

Corinth, whose dog was in his car, left the area when things got bad.

“When day turned to night on Paseo, the smoke was so thick I started coughing and my eyes were nonstop tearing,” Corinth wrote. “I had to get my dog out of there. I regret not staying longer.”

Pierson said the fire department was not in Malibu West for the first four hours of activity, but added that he has long held the belief that residents cannot expect their homes to be saved. 

“If you live in Malibu in a high fire zone, which is pretty much all of Malibu, and you expect other people to come and save your house, then you need to reevaluate that position,” Pierson said.

And while Pierson credits those who stayed behind with saving roughly 200 homes in Malibu West, he also admits that the City will have to discuss those who, like him, ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind, but who saved hundreds of homes by doing so.

“I’m super glad that the vast majority of people evacuated; I think everyone should evacuate, despite us staying,” Pierson said. “You really gotta have a very solid understanding of what you’re doing and what your plan is ... or else people die, and there’s no house worth that.” 

Roughly an hour-and-a-half after seeing the funnel of fire, Fote, who had retreated to the swim club, went back out and found active fires, including one fueled by a broken gas line. 

Fote said firetrucks from San Diego pulled up, and the firefighters spared Fote’s house and one other before heading down the street.

“It’s not like there was no firefighter presence,” Fote said. “It’s just that it was overwhelming — completely overwhelming.”

Palm trees resembled roman candles, Fote recalled, as the brigade members continuously wet them and any remaining brush. Railroad ties, too, served as ignition for the flames, Stoker said; even a fire extinguisher was no match.   

“You don’t know you’re tired at the time because your adrenaline is so pumped,” Stoker said.

In their training sessions, brigade members were taught to attack fires from as many angles as they could. With that in mind, they teamed up to tackle spot fire after spot fire. 

At one point, Fote realized that Biglow’s home had ignited while Biglow, the Piersons and others had gone to Point Dume to protect Biglow’s childhood home. Fote gathered a crew of residents who were able to extinguish the flames and put out more hot spots. 

Things calmed down after Friday, Stoker said, but a good night’s sleep was hard to come by.

“You’re sleeping in your clothes on top of your bed with your shoes on, waiting to pounce,” Stoker said.

Pierson, too, said he and his son tried to go to bed three or four times only to be woken up by a knock on the door.

When Pierson’s head finally hit the pillow, the last thing he saw out of his bedroom window was flames at a “fully engulfed” home on Trancas; luckily, he could see that firefighters were on scene, but he still called it a “surreal visual.”

On Saturday, he awoke to more flames, as spot fires continued throughout the day, with some significant ones in the morning, Pierson said. 

Corinth returned Saturday morning, walking the neighborhood and informing those who had lost their homes of the grim news. 

“It’s never fun being the bearer of bad news, but due to the road shutdowns people had to know,” he explained.

He also coordinated supply drops.

“Every day, I would skirt another roadblock after finding out what’s needed on the ground, bring it to them, gather info, fight more spot fires that would rise up without a moment’s notice, then head back into town where I could get the info ready to send back to the residents the next day,” Corinth wrote. 

All things considered, Stoker said Malibu West was lucky. In some residents’ eyes, though, luck has little to do with it.

“I have such praise for our locals who stayed back to fight the fires and saved many homes,” wrote Malibu West resident Maggie Luckerath, whose home was intact, in an email to the Surfside.

Corinth, too, called his neighbors heroes.

“I have been all over the world and can honestly say this is the best place in the world to live,” Corinth wrote. “The true locals, these are the ones whose families moved here decades ago when Malibu was still a quiet beach town, are the heroes here.  

“They are the ones that stayed to fight the fire. ... There are many of us that just do anything possible to stay here.”