Conejo Valley, Malibu Residents Move Forward After Woolsey Fire
If there’s one thing Malibu resident Rodger Halston learned about losing his home in the Woolsey Fire is that he’s grateful that he and his children, Maverick, 7, and Avalon, 13, made it out alive.
“It’s just stuff; my children and I made it out alive and are safe,” says Halston. “It [the house] collected memories, not stuff.”
Halston and his children lived off Trancas Canyon Road near Zuma Beach. He had lived in the home for two years, which was also the second home on the property that has been destroyed by a wildfire. The first home burned in 1993 during the Old Topanga Fire. When the home was rebuilt years later, the first level had concrete blocks and a slate/ceramic roof. However, the door was made of wood, which allowed the Woolsey Fire to sneak in and destroy the interior.
“The house was almost fireproof,” says Halston, noting he regularly did brush clearance around his house and the house behind his.
“This tragedy goes so wide and so deep for so many people,” says Halston. “In many cases in our lives, we watch these things happen from a distance and you never think it will happen to you personally. I don’t put my losses any more or less. Other families that have lived in their home for 50 years and lost it has brought me to tears.”
Halston says he and his children were the last to evacuate on Friday, Nov. 9 in the early afternoon. Earlier that morning, Halston woke up at about 7:30 a.m. to a sky filled with smoke.
“I couldn’t leave and have that thought of, ‘what’s going on?’” explains Halston. “It never occurred that we would have to leave, I honestly wasn’t too concerned. Then I got a call that the fire was about seven miles away.” Halston gathered his documents, electronics, change of clothes, three guitars and travel music.
On his drive down the canyon, Halston says he saw a woman he knew at Starbucks, who informed him that a resident had left horses in a corral.
“I drove back toward the wilderness and saw three horses,” says Halston. “My daughter and I jumped out of the car, unlocked the gate and the horses ran [toward Zuma Beach].”
Halston and his daughter got back into the car and drove further up the road when they heard a woman crying.
“She was stuck behind a big iron gate and I had to manually open the boxes,” says Halston. “She was very grateful.”
Halston and his children then prepared for a five-hour drive to Santa Monica, where they are currently staying with a friend. He learned his house was destroyed the next night when he received a text message from his landlord.
“I said, ‘Margaret, you’re kidding me’,” recalls Halston. “I was in disbelief.”
Halston registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross and is searching for a new place to live. He has also seen price gouging. When he reached out to a real estate agent for advice, the agent told Halston price gouging is “very true and disgusting.” His children also might not be able to return to school until the new year.
“I’m all about being proactive,” says Halston. “Each day I’m just doing something to get there. I hope everyone can come out of this with strength.”
Bomberos to the Rescue
Malibu resident Richard Gibbs lived at Point Dume since 1997. On Friday, Nov. 9, he and his wife, Linda, evacuated 15 minutes prior to his beloved house going up in flames. Earlier, he had gathered his photo albums and valuable guitars into his cars and prepped his property by moving wooden furniture and throwing it into the swimming pool.
Although his house was destroyed, his legendary music studio still stood.
“I went back Sunday morning and all the houses around the property had burned,” says Gibbs.
Him and his wife were able to stay temporarily at Surfrider Hotel in Malibu. He made progress by securing a house to rent in Point Dume, registering with FEMA and working with an architect and the Malibu Planning Department to rebuild at the same location.
“We are a close-knit neighborhood and everyone’s pulling together and helping each other out,” says Gibbs.
Many Point Dume residents are thankful for the Point Dume Bomberos, a group of 20 to 40 males that slept in shifts to help save homes without the assistance of the firemen by extinguishing hot spots and steering away looters. The command post was set up at Paradise Cove and donation boats came in with food, water, clothing and other necessities.
“With our brave firefighters spread thin throughout the region and the State of California, many of these communities were devastated as the flames unexpectedly tore through, leaving many residents fighting to defend their own homes. Too many homes could not be saved. However, without the supplementing support and dedication of our brave local citizens, the fire might have claimed many more,” states the group in a GoFundMe page.
Two lessons that Lori and Tim Jackson of Westlake Village learned from losing their home at Oak Forest Mobile Home Park is to grab more items when being evacuated and to check the homeowner’s insurance policy.
“We were under insured and are having an issue with replacement costs,” says Lori. “We had just put in a brand new kitchen. Call your homeowner’s insurance and tell them you want to up your coverage.”
The Jacksons evacuated the home they had lived in for five years at 2:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9. They followed FEMA’s five P’s: people and pets, papers, prescriptions, personal needs (clothing, phones, water) and priceless items (in this case, vinyl records, Lori’s mother’s jewelry and the Bible). Currently, they are staying at Tim’s mother’s house in Thousand Oaks.
“We had plenty of time to evacuate and didn’t think the fire would come that far and get the house,” says Lori. “But you need to take it seriously. Your home might not be there when you return.”
While Lori was watching the wildfire on the news, she saw it creep up the ridge toward Westlake Village. She immediately called her husband at work.
“I was still thinking at that point that it wasn’t a big deal,” explains Tim, recalling how he had left work and driven back to the ridge. There, he noticed other neighbors and firefighters were trying to extinguish spot fires.
“I saw that there were still roofs on houses in the valley, but it was smoky,” says Tim. “The police let me drive in and I went in as far as I could and I saw 10 firefighters trying to put out two houses on either side of the street. Once they knocked the flames down, I got through and I noticed all of the houses were gone.”
The Jacksons lost their home around 1 p.m. that day. They registered with FEMA and also have plans to rebuild.
“We own the land,” says Tim. “We grew up here and it’s a gorgeous place to live.”
The Jacksons say they are overwhelmed and thankful for the outpouring of love from the community. A church family has offered to let them stay in their father’s home in Thousand Oaks for free until the new home is rebuilt.
“People have been so generous with financial donations, clothes, prayers and even offers for Thanksgiving dinner from people we don’t even know,” says Lori. “We’ve never felt more loved.”
Agoura Hills resident Paulette Koenig puts her neighbors first.
As president of the homeowner’s association for Seminole Springs Mobile Home Park, she has been helping shareholders, answering questions and relieving the fears of the 600 residents who live there. She also sifted through 101 mobile homes that are no longer standing with help from Upper Ojai Relief, a nonprofit that helps communities recover and rebuild after a disaster. The remaining 114 homes made it through the wildfire but sustained damage.
“Some of the houses didn’t burn down–they exploded,” says Koenig. “It was just so hot that day and the humidity level was only at 4%. I’ve never seen a wildfire where the humidity dropped so much.”
Koenig says she and Upper Ojai Relief volunteers have found military medals, jewelry, diamond rings, wedding bands and a locket necklace in a safe. She even found a porcelain dish with a lid that a neighbor had gifted to her.
“I take it as a sign that we’ll be back and our next door neighbor will be back,” says Koenig. “I’m trying to help my community and get the park back up and running. The air quality isn’t safe and the debris is toxic. The water lines melted and bacteria got into the water lines. There’s no electricity. The sooner we can get the toxins out, the safer it will be.”
Koenig and her husband, Robert, evacuated on Friday, Nov. 9, at 8:11 a.m. They grabbed their cell phones, laptops, some photos (including their daughter Ashley’s, who was vacationing in Cabo, Mexico, at the time), important documents and clothing for three days. Having been through wildfires in the past, they were hopeful they would be returning to their home where they had lived together for seven years unscathed.
“I saw a wall of flames coming toward us,” says Koenig. “We then grabbed some more clothes and shoes and left.”
The Koenigs lost most of their artwork made by family, photos and a Ketubah, a Jewish wedding license signed by the oldest people on each side of the family.
Most of the residents, including the Koenigs, are staying at the Homewood Suites in Agoura Hills.
“I believe lightening doesn’t strike twice,” says Koenig. “[Seminole Springs] is a good location. We have enough items like clothing, water and food, but we really need money to help build the community.”
She and her husband have found a temporary rental home in Ojai and will be relocating there until their new home is built in Seminole Springs.
“I’m just trying to look for some good in all of this,” says Koenig. “Now we have the opportunity to rebuild and make different changes.”
Woolsey Fire Facts
Date: Nov. 8, 2018
Time: 2:30 p.m.
Location: E St. and Alfa Road, south of Simi Valley
Acres Burned: 96,949
Structures Destroyed: 1,643
Structures Damaged: 364
Injuries: 3 firefighters
Deaths: 3 civilians
Containment: Nov. 22, 2018