Aftermath of the Woolsey Fire
Story by Lindsey Jurca | Photos by William Durland
It was a Sunday morning — less than 10 days had passed since the Woolsey fire had first sparked. The fire was not yet contained and no one could get in, or out, of Malibu. I joined a few dear friends from my local Surfrider Chapter and a band of surf-loving strangers to lend a hand to our northern neighbors who’ve been impacted by the Woolsey Fire.
We woke before dawn to pack a U-Haul full of generators, fuel, oil and non-perishables in hopes of relieving Malibu residents that had been stranded since the start of the fire. We managed to maneuver our way through a series of checkpoints, thanks to nothing less than a coordinated miracle. At our third and final checkpoint, we were embraced by a team of first responders, who would escort our caravan up to one of Malibu’s westernmost canyons. In order to navigate the hairpin turns in dangerous conditions, we had to narrow our caravan, so I jumped in with the firemen.
As we wound our way through the devastation I sat in shock taking in the scenery. There was a pillow sandwiched between the next seat and me, the captain at the wheel was taking excited bites of an apple — signs that breaks were few and far between. Despite the tension and sadness in the air, laughter and resilience shone right through their soot-stained uniforms at the end of—what I’d come to find out—was four straight days of fighting back 100-foot walls of fire.
They spoke (only when asked), of the lives they were able to save, the homes they protected, and the night they managed to find shelter in a shed and squeeze in three hours of shuteye—some of the only rest they’d managed to get all week. They referred to each other as best friends; an enduring bond that disaster and loss tends to forge.
When we reached our drop off point, I did my best to express the gratitude that had been building in my heart year-after-year at the heroism displayed by our firefighters in the face of the forest fires that have ravaged California. Generously, they hopped out and helped us unload the gear until the radio, once again, called them to need.
While unpacking the goods, we were embraced by Gary, a rancher in Decker Canyon who’d lived and worked on his land for 62 years. Gary had stayed back and managed to protect his property, which now resembles the only sign of life in the expanse between two scorched ridge lines. Gary reached his sun soaked hand out to thank us for being the first sign of relief he’d seen since the fire. With clarity in his eyes, he spoke of what had been on all of our minds: “times, they are a changin.”
There was nothing more to say.
I spent much of the day in a haze, grappling with the piercing silence that punctuated each story. Stories of locals that you won’t hear on the news, people who—as my dear friend Graham put it so eloquently—are “quiet, working class folk whose relative wealth is in the land and the walls that have been in their family for generations.” I met a 6-year old boy who lost everything in the fire aside from his nerf gun. He and his single mom were uninsured. We watched a man pull into his driveway as he would any normal day, stepping out to find nothing left of his house, save a red Weber grill. It’s hard to describe or capture a devastation whose path leaves little behind but a void.
After unloading the gear, four of us crammed into the U-Haul and snuck past Highway Patrol to take a moment for ourselves to visit our beloved, Leo Carillo. This gem of a beach, once tucked away behind coastal shrub and buzzing with life, now stands naked and lifeless, with lonely waves and an eery hiss of fractured power lines. The iconic, turquoise lifeguard tower, now nothing more than a heap of metal, is mangled and melted onto the shoreline. The loss of this beach represents only a fraction of the special places California has lost: in our neighborhood alone, more than 100,000 acres of Santa Monica Wilderness was scorched and 88% of our federal parkland is now gone.
While this set of fires is dwindling, matters of critical importance, most certainly, are not. Climate change ensures more frequent droughts and more intense storms. On a more immediate note, there are thousands of people both in Malibu and in Paradise who have yet to be granted the ability to bear witness to their loss of loved ones, and of their land. They will need help and they will need friends. There will be rains, ensuring mudslides, against which most homeowners who survived the flames will be uninsured and unprotected.
With all that said, I’d like to leave a few parting notes:
One: Hold your wilderness tight! Protect and enjoy what you love. Give back to your state and National Parks as well as your best-kept secret wildlands (I'll see you out there). The gift they give is immeasurable, but not unconditional.
Two: For every story of sadness and loss, there is a story of bravery, resilience, brilliance and generosity. If you find yourself wanting to be one of those stories, there are number of ways to get involved or give. I’ve listed a few of my vetted favorites below.
Help California: a band of badasses who formed in response to last year’s Thomas fires. They’ve been on the ground in Malibu and Paradise helping to relieve, rebuild and restore. They roll their sleeves up, with little overhead, to install sandbags, restore properties and roads and reunite people and animals.
North Valley Community Foundation: A Chico-based nonprofit helping to support organizations that are sheltering evacuees of the Camp Fire.
Boys & Girls Club of Malibu who is working to support on-the-ground volunteer efforts as well as the raising and allocating of funds to help affected families.