ITOW: Joshua Crawford

11-year Malibu resident Joshua Crawford was hired at the Malibu Labor Exchange to help defend a home up Corral Canyon from skyscraper-high flames.

As told to Malibu Magazine

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Around 6:30 a.m. I woke up on Zuma Beach, where I sleep most nights. I could smell smoke. I walked over to the Labor Exchange and Oscar [the Director of the Malibu Labor Exchange] was like ‘Yep. Malibu’s on fire.’ 

Then a guy in a Lincoln Town Car pulled up. He said he needed four men to help with a fire. He chose me and three other guys I didn’t know.

As we started driving to his house up Corral Canyon, he told us we were going to fight fire, that our lives were on the line. Then we knew this was real. We could die.But it wasn’t a deterrent. I wanted to do whatever I could do to help. I’ve lived in Malibu for 11 years, and the community’s been so good to me.  My two daughters, who are now 9 and 10, went to Webster. It’s so positive here, who wouldn’t want to help? Even though I don’t have a home, I wanted to do my part to help someone save theirs. 

When we got to the man’s house, everything on the other side of the hill was on fire. But it wasn’t exactly on us yet. We helped the man hook up his water pumps to the hydrant, then just watched the fires on the other side of the mountain. We watched as Trancas started to burn, then Point Dume. That night, though, the fire peaked over the hill. Then, suddenly, it hopped up on the other side of us, and we were engulfed in it. 

We stayed up all Friday night, fighting fires high as lampposts. We took shifts sleeping a little, outside around the perimeter, to be on alert. We could feel our lives were on the line. We put fire out behind other people’s houses, too. it wasn’t just the house of the man who hired us. We saved the 10 or so houses that were around it. The whole thing was a rollercoaster ride. It’s unexplainable. It was like war. But finally, around Sunday evening, you could see it was starting to blow over. Everything that could catch fire had already burnt.

One thing that was heartbreaking was seeing the animals that died— the chipmunks, the squirrels, the mice. We saw a little deer that day, and the man who lived there said normally he saw it with its family. But that day it was just the one.

On Tuesday morning, we finally left. I was exhausted, and just wanted to talk to my kids, who live in Texas now.  At Sunset and PCH, I finally got service. My family had been trying to get in touch with me the whole time. My oldest was really worried. When I finally did talk to her, she was in a panic. 

I headed back to the labor exchange, then eventually to a shelter in L.A. I can still see the fire now. I have nightmares about it. I was assigned a doctor at the shelter, who’s diagnosed me with PTSD.

I’m still coughing, too. I’ve been coughing up black stuff, coughing up blood. I was at the shelter for about a week, because I couldn’t get back into Malibu. I didn’t have any documents showing I lived there. Since I’ve gotten back, it’s really slowed down at the labor exchange. I used to make good money, could support my kids. But it’s just gone. I specialize in landscaping, and so many houses lost their yards.

I tried seeing if I could get help from FEMA. I explained that I’d been living and doing yardwork in Malibu for 11 years. They said unless I lost a home, there’s nothing I could sign up for. The only really bad experience I had though was when I went to the FEMA counter a few weeks after the fire. I was hungry, and asked if I could get a bag of trail mix and a bottle of water. The woman was so rude. She said, ‘I’ll give it to you this time, but you just can’t come in here.’ I was like, ‘I’ve lived in Malibu for 11 years. I just put my life on the line.’ It really hurt my feelings. I asked if she wanted me to pay for it, but she said no. MM

Holly Bieler