Malibu Fires from a 1st Person View

We’ve all heard the expression, “Life can turn on a dime,” but I know so few with a frame of reference that makes good on the claim. And I’ve always wondered to what degree events turn before one owns the adage personally. Certainly the death of a significant loved one falls into the justifiable category, where life as one has known it is inalterably changed. There are other examples, but not many.

I have a feeling I’m standing on one of those dimes, but have yet to intuit the  fallout. As I write, there are torrential fires where I live in Malibu, California. At the moment, I’m an hour away in Santa Barbara, where the sun takes center stage over this Spanish-style, manicured town, with its one-way streets apportioned in terra-cotta, wrought-iron  and stucco.  Were it any other time, I’d be wide-eyed and skipping along downtown’s State Street. As it is, I’m disillusioned and displaced– it’s a feeling unlike any other. I took a walk this morning on the city streets, longing for terra firma because I didn’t feel grounded. There’s nothing more unbalancing than a threat to one’s foundation. No matter the location of your feet, a threat on one’s home effects the head.

I’m six whirlwind days into this now, pausing for the first time to assess.  I’ve been on the move with two dogs, a cat and a husband; it took us a while to secure a base.

Last Thursday, there were fire reports in an area separated from Malibu by the arid, Santa Monica Mountains. In the cyclical drought of post-summer Southern California, fire conditions are ripe, in conjunction with the Santa Ana winds, which rage seaward from the desert at 30 to 40 MPR like breath from the hounds of hell.

I was standing in the living room Friday morning, when I saw ashes landing on our front deck. Through the moving filter of grey-cotton billows, the sun was an otherworldly neon-pink. And I’ve heard it said animals intuit pending doom long before people bring themselves to accept it. Our cat, typically self-sufficient, stood in my shadow, and both dogs whined at the front door, when I walked through it in search of my husband, whom I found wielding a full-throttle hose on the roof.

Personalities and priorities come into play, under unanticipated duress. Even with the best intentions in cogent, team-played sports, one discovers individual plans. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t see the merit in my husband battening down the hatches, it’s just that I’m pretty good at grasping the inevitable. I was useful in removing all things potentially flammable from our outside decks, then I left him to go inside and  pack.

I’ve been asked repeatedly what it was I packed so hastily, and understand this is a viable question. My urgent thinking concerned two things: the long-term and that which can’t be replaced. Clothes for both of us for the long-run; jewelry and watches and my accordion file of important papers. Laptops and power cords and cell-phone chargers, winter coats, and walking shoes, and all things pertaining to the maintenance of our pets. I pulled the car out of the garage and loaded it in record time, while my husband turned on every sprinkler on our property. His plan was to stay with the house and fight the fire; mine was to keep my mouth shut until he saw the light.

When the light came, it crept ominously behind our house from the mountain. Through the opaque, unbreathable air, the sky lightened, and I knew it could only mean one thing. Brighter and brighter the backdrop shrieked, the dawning of illumination unwelcome. When the flames appeared, they crowned the ridge in an unbreakable wall, a moving inferno with nowhere to go but down.

That’s when we fled to the car, and turned right on the Pacific Coast Highway. In front of us, the canyons of a state park were ablaze in disconnected, sporadic pockets that seemed to have little to do with each other, yet all headed in the direction of our house. In a last ditch effort, my husband called the local fire department, and miraculously, someone answered the phone. We had no way of knowing what the result would be, in a town spontaneously aflame, but our address was given, and we headed north.

Have you ever travelled with pets, without a plan, nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof? I don’t recommend it unless there’s no other option, which still happens to be our state of affairs.

And the uncertainty of not knowing if one’s house is standing is emotionally and psychically taxing. It’s an exhaustion spawned by a weariness that bypasses the bones and runs like an electrical current in the blood. One keeps going because they have to, in this fight or flight battle with fate. The world, it seems, is relegated to myopic focus. As for all other bets, suffice it to say they’re off.

For the first three days after our evacuation, my husband and I were riveted to the local, heartbreaking news and scoured the internet for information about our area of town, yet there was none to be had. Our house is on the outskirts of Malibu, so far out it can be defined as way beyond the pale. Those three frustrating days felt like searching in a sea of futility. In what I think now is help from divinity, I woke Monday morning and did a random search online of our area’s location. When the large scale, long-range photograph of our area sprang to my screen, I forwarded the image to my husband. He enlarged a dot of the picture, and when the image grew, there was our house!

Three days have transpired, since the discovery of our house standing, and in those days, we have relocated farther north, while awaiting word on when Malibu’s residents will be allowed into the city. There are a handful of social media forums where displaced Malibu residents share information, but the bottom line is nobody is allowed into town, due to the fact that the fire is not wholly contained, and for much of the town, there is no water or power.

I’ve been turning over the idea of powerlessness and how one comes to ultimate surrender. One gets to the point where they simply quit struggling with what is, and does their best to simply make due.

I’ve been hyper-aware of my thoughts these days, knowing, as I do, that one’s attitude defines one’s experience. I seem to have lost my focus a bit. My mind runs laps around the simplest of tasks as I keep looking for center page, and although I fancy myself stoic,  I’m told these are symptoms of trauma. And what startles me most is this awareness of a heightened sense of compassion and empathy I now possess. I’ve seen homeless people in parts of this city I’m in, and it takes everything I have not to break down and weep.

And here sits I, luckier than most, for my husband and I have a house standing, when so many in Malibu don’t.

I may be in an ambiguous spot now, but I can tell you one thing: When they open Malibu to its residents, my plan is to take my bleeding heart and open our front door to those in need.

I will bear witness. Life can and does turn on a dime.











32 thoughts on “Malibu Fires from a 1st Person View

  1. Claire, this is heartbreaking and heroic at once. Those of us who live in California, Oregon, or Washington are only a cinder flight from disaster. In other states or countries, people are a fraction of a second from being made homeless by flood, blizzard, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, extreme drought, or snowstorm. You’d think all these potential disasters would awaken our sense of compassion and prevent us from setting the world afire and adrift with gunfire and bombs. But some still manage to scrounge mayhem from the blackness of their souls.

    I am so very glad that your home is still waiting for you and hope you’ve opened the eyes of others to be generous in all ways. Bless you for writing from the depths of your golden heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Claire, I’m so happy to hear your home is still standing and waiting for your return. Life can deal some pretty heavy blows, but that you and your husband and pets are safe is a blessing. I cringe when the news comes on knowing that the death toll is on the rise and so many have yet to be located. The loss of property is staggering, but to those who have lost loved ones and friends, it is horrific. Praying for you and all who have suffered loss and displacement in these raging fires. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! You’ve used the word horrific, and I’m thinking it’s never had a more apt use! Daily, I hear of friends who have lost their home completely. I don’t know of anyone in Malibu who has lost a loved one ( thought there were two unidentified deaths reported.) I hear that the fires north of San Francisco are worse! Yes, horrific!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A haunting telling her Claire, only wishing it was fiction. You are so brave and I so glad you guys got out and the bonus is your house is still standing, what a blessing. I can’t even pretend to imagine what you’ve been through – especially emotionally. Thank you for sharing your upside down world with us now and I will continue to hold you and Cali in my thoughts ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank goodness that your home is still standing and more importantly you, your husband, two dogs and cat are safe. This time of Thanksgiving is going to be a difficult one for thousands of families in the wake of this disaster and the whole world has been looking on and feeling helpless. I am sure that the prevailing approach will be as you say.. open doors and welcome to those in need. Thinking of you…hugs Sally


    1. Big love to you, Sally. It does help to know that so many were aware as this tragedy transpired. One truly does get a strange type of insular focus while something like this goes on. It is the very definition of bewildered fear, and oh, the powerlessness of it all. But to go today to see our property and to find it so miraculously untouched, save for certain charred areas ! And that hundreds of acres near us were absolutely torched is beyond all. It’s as if part of the Malibu fires swept the hillside and simply stopped in our front yard!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I cannot imagine the feelings you must have both been experiencing.. leaving with just a handful of essential items and your papers, and the precious dogs and cat, knowing that your home was at the mercy of the unpredictable raging fire. Who knows what dynamics were at play when the fire bypassed your home… but it must also give you a sense of gratitude this week in particular and from your comments, I know you will spread that thankfulness to others. xxx♥


      1. You’re welcome, Claire.

        I’m getting ready to publish my collection of stories from the Black Saturday fires (title changes and revisions and all that) with a view to having it available around the anniversary.

        In the meantime, though, if you’re interested, I posted the poems with an internal link/ping to keep the sequence, on my blog. I’ll be removing the poems as book publication comes a bit closer.

        The intro is below, but please don’t feel any obligation to look. I’m sure you have many more significant things to occupy you, at present.

        Here is the link:


  5. I have no idea what it must be like to flee your home with only a car of possessions, not know if you’ll ever see your home again. I’m so pleased your house is still standing and wish you all the best when you are able to return.


    1. Thank you, Mary. In hindsight, the past 11 days have been surreal. But we were allowed into Malibu today, and we walked all over our property. Much of it is miraculously untouched, certainly the house is! Odd to report that the acres nearest to us were all but burned to the ground. I can honestly say that for 3 days, we were sure the house was gone! The fire was rushing straight for it when we left! I almost can’t take it in, but oh, the relief! I know many in Malibu who weren’t as lucky. I have yet to go into the town, but imagine I’ll see it much changed!


  6. Claire, I read your first-person account riveted. Words seem trite from the place of one’s own couch. The world rages not so quietly at the ravages of our greed as it begs us to wake up to our shared humanity. Your brave, compassionate words in the front-lines of disaster give me hope that humanity’s heart can heal this vast and ever-deepening wound we are all a part of. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So terrifying, Claire. I live in fire country too, and have learned a lot about the actions to take by watching these fires and hearing the stories. I’m so glad your house didn’t burn, but more so that you and yours are safe.

    Liked by 1 person

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