The Ones Who Stayed

Written by Barbara Burke | Photography by Jack Platner

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On November 9, as the Woolsey and Hill Fires wreaked devastation on Malibu from Point Mugu Park in the West to Malibu Canyon in the east, the City of Malibu put out an urgent, mandatory order: everyone in Malibu needed to evacuate immediately. Having jumped the 101, and fire was now barreling towards Malibu’s most populous areas, and the city had deemed it too unsafe for any Malibuite to remain. 

And yet, many did. When there were not enough firefighters to fight blazes, brave Malibuites stayed behind. Together they mobilized, fighting treacherous fires, thwarting hotspots before they fully engulfed structures into flames, spending sleelness nights keeping eyes out for embers. While many displaced by evacuation orders sat helplessly, horrified and panicked, lacking information and increasingly in the throes of giving up hope entirely, of acquiescing to the conflagration’s seeming intent to burn most, if not all, of Malibu, citizen-based groups fought heroically – and often very successfully – to save many structures from burning.  

This article cannot encompass stories of all the heroes, of all the Malibuites who saved their own homes or those of their evacuated neighbors, or of all the citizens who sent much-needed fuel, food, water and other supplies – by land and sea – in the days after the fire’s first demonic assault on Malibu. Rather, this piece only provides a sampling of such stories.

In the wee hours of November 9, as the fire raced through Kanan and Malibu Canyon after hopping the 101 , Malibu radio KBUU’s Hans Laetz had already hosted a herculean, hours-long broadcast to keep Malibuites informed about the advancing flames. Laetz foretold an ominous outcome. “That the fire has crossed over the 101 is a very bad fact,” he said on air that morning “This could be a very bad fire for Malibu.”

In the weeks since, as Malibuites have begun the hard work of rebuilding their homes and community, many maintain that local and regional officials did not handle fighting the fire correctly.  “There were not enough firefighters and too many sheriffs,” Malibu City Councilperson Lou LaMonte said at a December 4 city council meeting attended by approximately 500 Malibuites, many of whom appeared enraged, demanding answers exasperatedly throughout the night. 

Numerous community members we spoke with for this story maintain that efforts by evacuated Malibuites and others to send much-needed generators, fuel, water, food and supplies to the locals fighting the fire were unjustly thwarted by law enforcement, which imposed hard stops by land as well as by sea. Adding to this frustration, during the fire and in the days since, is the perception that the damage caused by the Woolsey Fire would be significantly greater if not for these locals’ efforts. To many, these are the heroes of the Woolsey Fire, the reason many people’s homes are still standing.

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These informal groups, organized hurriedly and scattershot as the fire descended upon Malibu, were made up of neighbors and friends, grandfathers and young adults, acquaintances and lifelong friends.

One such group was the Point Dume Bombers, made up of Malibu milennials. “These young men were amazing,” said Linda Gibbs, the mother of bomber Keegan Gibbs. “They never stopped fighting and are still fighting to this day. They’re helping to repair fences for Malibuites who didn’t have insurance.” Point Dume resident Suzy Duff agreed. “The young men who rallied and fought the fires saved many homes,” she said. “Their efforts and accomplishments were phenomenal.” 34 year-old Keegan  said that as the fire surged toward Pt. Dume, he and a group of friends quickly rallied to save their community, meeting at the Point Dume home of 28 year-old Leo Harrington to brainstorm an initial plan. “Leo’s house was the initial resource center,” Keegan said. “We gathered generators, food and bottled water and went there to regroup and to communicate. The Point Dume Bombers started with just a few kids who stayed back and kept houses safe, and that community effort spread from there.” To fully comprehend the devastation, one must realize that, as the fire ravaged through canyons and came over the hillsides it was a beast. “It was basically a fire that was fourteen miles long,” State Senator Henry Stern said at an emergency meeting held at Taft High School days after the fire made its first assault on Malibu. “At times, it was ten feet high and it was racing at seventy miles an hour.”

Adding to these challenges was the fact that Malibuites were waging the war with no electricity and no cellular service.  As the hours and days went on, many even found there was no water available to fight the fires.  

Without electricity, without water, without cellular communication, and without enough fire trucks and personnel, the locals valiantly fought on in a living hell, a classic David-against-Goliath scenario. Increasingly, however, the effort began to gain more and more David’s, and the efforts also became more sophisticated.

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When Bomber Robert Spangle realized he had a touch of self service at the top of Big Dume, he began directing operations. “[Robert] was able to see fires and he had reception and could facilitate communications between people on the Point, Malibu Park and Ramirez, and even all the way to Decker Canyon,” said Keegan. “Sam McGee joined him and we all started fighting fires.” 

They were waging the battle of their lives.

“After 24 hours, we outgrew Leo’s house and I asked Malibu City Council Member Skylar Peak if we could establish a resource and rescue center at Pt. Dume Elementary,” Keegan said. “That became something much bigger than just a place of resources – it became a place to quickly cope with devastation by surrounding ourselves with an outpouring of community and love.  I’ve never seen this community rally behind each other like this.”

Soon Bomber friends Brianna Strange and Helen Henning had joined the cause, with Strange heading the dispersing of desperately-needed gas and generators, and Henning coordinating the distribution of food, snacks and water at the center. All hands were on deck, as all fought tirelessly and doggedly against flames, against hots spots, against exhaustion. They were buoyed by a love of Malibu that many times outlasted and outwitted the beastly blazes. 

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At the same time, just a few streets over on Point Dume , Malibu native Jerry Wolf Duff Sanders joined a group gathered at the compound of his neighbor, real estate agent Chris Cortazzo, including Chris’ brother, Danny Cortazzo, a retired fire chief, to coordinate firefighting efforts. “On Friday night, Chris saved an elderly lady’s house,” Duff Sanders said. “We used pool pumps and laid out lines and were running on generators. There were people on Boniface, on Dume Drive, on Portshead, some standing in the street trying to fight fires and we used water from pools and from Jacuzzis to fight the fires.”  

As Duff Sanders and others waged their wars, in an amazing journey, Duff Sanders’ girlfriend, Devyn Sisson, battled difficult road conditions to bring desperately-needed supplies and foodstuffs to the Cortazzo compound. “I drove every way possible and encountered many road blocks,” Sisson said. “I wanted to give it a shot. I had to get to Malibu.  I had been in Pacific Palisades at first and there it was peaceful and business as usual, while there was an apocalypse in Malibu. I ended up going through Boney Mountain State Wilderness Area and along the Sycamore hiking trail and I hit a paved road, which I assumed was a fire road. I just kept driving.” After an hours-long, arduous trek, Sisson arrived on Point Dume and immediately set to doing what she enjoys most – she cooked and cooked and cooked and fed hungry firefighters. “I’d wake up to find an exhausted firefighter doing the dishes,” Sisson said. “I did not realize how much people really appreciate a hot meal after two days of only eating Cliff Bars.” 

While Sisson off-roaded to get into Malibu to render help, many brought supplies by sea, often docking at Paradise Cove Pier.

“We built a pulley system off the pier,”  said Paradise Cove resident Mitch Taylor. “That way, when there was low tide, we could pull the boats up and we could off-load generators.”

There are many other tales of heroism.  Mikke Pierson, a newly elected City Councilperson, risked his life to travel up Kanan to feed chickens.  “The the poor things were dying of thirst,” he said. “But we got them some water.”

Others saved horses, dogs, cats, birds and llamas – somehow, some way, they saved them. Wolf Sanders, Keegan Gibbs and others bravely raced up canyons to do wellness checks. At one point, a volunteer arranged to bring insulin to a diabetic ranch hand who continued on fighting fires on Decker Canyon.

“Steve Moak, an old Malibuite, is a wildfire hot shot who was dropped into wildfires to put out hotspots,” Keegan said. “When he was off duty, he saved multiple homes in Malibu and gave us basic training and was a default tutor to us to show us how to battle hotspots as well as how to use chainsaws to cut down trees that were hollowed out due to the fire,”

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Rambla Pacifica resident Brian Goldberg took his three sons – Dylan Haw, Wyatt Lightning and Luke Skyler –out to fight the flames in Malibu West. Brave little men – Malibu’s next generation – helped to fight against the inferno. Bluewater Dr. resident Barry Walker deployed a large converted LAX flight crew transport bus he has had for years and helped set up the command center in Point Dume, transporting much-needed fuel to citizens. Another Malibu resident, Scott Hosfeld, managed to get back into Malibu with a City of Malibu contingent that included City Manager Reva Feldman and actor Pierce Brosnan and his wife, journalist Keely Shae Brosnan. “I spent the next four days putting out spot fires on Pt. Dume and Malibu Park,” Hosfeld said. “We were hauling gas, food and supplies and donated generators to those who had stayed behind to protect our properties.”

Local restaurants and business establishments did what they could to help.  Kristy’s Restaurant at Trancas Country Mart allowed residents to come in and get food.  Surfrider Hotel opened its doors and housed evacuees and hosted a BBQ on November 24 for those affected by the fire to help lift spirits and raise money to donate to the Malibu Boys & Girls Club. The event featured live music, tacos, BBQ, raffles, a flower stand. Nobu, headed by head chef Gregario Stephenson, opened up their freezers and began putting together hot meals for first responders.

Bill Miller of Malibu Kitchen told Malibu Magazine about a similar event. “Nobu’s chef, Gregario Stephenson, opened the freezers at Nobu and fed firefighters huge meals,” Miller said. “It was a wonderful thing to see the first responders [eat] great meals after the sun went down.” Many homeowners fought fires single-handedly.  Some won their battles. Some didn’t.  “The fire was amazing and the hot spots kept springing up . . . it was exploding like an atomic bomb and making its own weather systems,” said Carla McCloskey of her and her husband Leigh’s struggles to successfully ward off the flames threatening their Malibu Park home.  “It wasn’t until later that we realized the dragon that we were fighting against.” McCloskey’s Malibu Park neighborhood would ultimately become one of the hardest-hit areas.  

Malibu City Councilperson and now Mayor Zuma Jay Wagner fought to save his home with every ounce of his strength. He was seriously injured in the process and was hospitalized in the intensive care ward due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Unfortunately, he lost his valiant battle and the home was consumed in flames.  Fortunately, he has recovered from his injuries.

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The Woolsey Fire, the largest in Southern California’s recorded history, was a fire like none other. So too, however, were the valiant efforts to fight it.

Now, weeks after the fire, most Malibuites are focusing on trying to remediate properties that were only smoke-damaged or trying to rebuild structures that were totally lost. However, some Malibuites must rebuild without any help because they did not have insurance and locals are stepping up to help them rebuild. 

“With the help of a non-profit named Help California that was started in response to a fire last year, some of us are working to help build fences and replace lost structures,” Keegan said. “Bonnie Decker – whose dad built Decker Canyon – lost a water tank and stables and corrals so we are up there helping to rebuild those.”

The grit, tenacity and resilience displayed by those who valiantly and relentlessly battled the blazes is now focusing on rebuilding the beautiful Bu, stronger and more fire-resistant than ever. MM

Holly Bieler