Malibu Residents Vow to Rebuild, but With Greater Fire Safety

Malibu is now in the throes of recovering from the disastrous Woolsey Fire, but what does recovery look like?

It had been 10 days since the Greenbergs evacuated their Malibu Park house, endured six hours in the mass exodus traffic jam on Pacific Coast Highway, and settled in with accommodating Woodland Hills friends to wait out Woolsey, the most destructive fire ever in their world-renowned seaside community.

Finally, they returned over the Santa Monica Mountains through Malibu Canyon, stopping in the civic center at the newly-opened Assistance Center before making their way up the coast, already knowing their home of three decades had been consumed.

"I'm kind of afraid to go back to our neighborhood," admitted Tony Greenberg, MD, sitting with his wife, Jill, who runs the Malibu Learning Center tutoring program located on their property.

As they spoke with a reporter outside the assistance center, they encountered friends and neighbors who had also suffered losses. But without missing a beat, Dr. Greenberg added a pledge.

"I believe we have to rebuild our neighborhood."

It is a recurring theme your hear from most everyone returning to Malibu, haven for artists and creators, its scenic beauty of mountains meeting ocean again scarred by wildfire, the full extent of it still yet to be fully assessed, but perhaps as many as 600 homes destroyed.

"Nobody ever though it would be of this magnitude," said Karen York, longtime publisher of the Malibu Times newspaper.

A quarter century ago, she and her husband had lost their La Costa neighborhood home during what until Woolsey had been Malibu's worst ever conflagration, the Old Topanga fire that destroyed much of the city's eastern end.

Woolsey burned father west, the brunt of it inflicted on Malibu's up-coast end, beyond the civic center all the way into Ventura County.

The city of Malibu, comprising more than 20 miles of coastline and extending only a few miles inland, is home to 13,000 residents, with thousands of summer visitors. Also considered within the Malibu community are many more who live in the unincorporated area in the mountains above.

York already looks ahead to Malibu's recovery.

"That's really important to rebuild as fast as we can," York said.

Many in Malibu use the word "magical" to describe the appeal.

"Malibu is a special place," said the Greenbergs, who spoke of not only the beauty and the climate, but the community connection. 

"We didn't realize how important that was till this happened to us," Jill Greenberg said. 

"We don't stop. We put our heads down and keep walking," declared one well-known Malibu resident still visibly in physical pain.

Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, the stuntman, surfshop owner, and incoming Malibu mayor came to the assistance center having been been only recently released  from being hospitalized for burns and other injuries suffered trying to save his house from the Woolsey fire.

Like so many in his community, Wagner is already giving thought to what needs to be done differently this time when Malibu rises again from ashes.

From his experience, Wagner sees need for more more rigorous roofing standards. It was not the wall of flames that overwhelmed his house in the hills, he said, but windblown embers that ignited the roof.

Standards should be focused on area needs and adopted locally, not imposed from Sacramento, in the view of State Senator Henry Stern, D-Malibu, whose Malibu condominium home burned in the fire.

The Greenbergs will be disappointed if incorporating greater fire resistance deprives homes of charm.

"I hope I don't have to build a concrete bunker," said Jill Greenberg.  What they will keep is one item on their property that did survive Woolsey, their whimsical laughing fountain.

She emphasized she and her husband want to stay in Malibu Park, but at the same time, said insurance provisions mean many residents have no choice. If the Greenbergs keep their home in California, their policy limits reimbursement to rebuilding their existing property, not using the proceeds to buy another house, unless they move out of state.

Another area of concern is water delivery systems that  could not meet demand  Nov. 9 when the fire came across the mountains and down to the coast at Point Dume.  Many residents who stayed behind to try to protect their homes said water pressure dropped to a trickle.

Council member Lou La Monte urges a new look at the long delayed plan to upgrade Malibu's Waterworks District 29.

There have disagreements over the scope of the project, in part stemming from resistance among many community members to infrastructure improvements that would enable unwanted development and growth.

Given Malibu's location below brush covered canyons prone to seasonal Santa Ana Winds, periodic wildfires have always come with the territory, since before the current drought, before recognition of climate change, even before Malibu was discovered by movie stars and moguls, and the Malibu Colony developed as Hollywood's seaside playground.

Looking from the outside, what some forget, La Monte and others remind, is that Malibu is home to thousands who are neither famous nor rich, many first lured up coast decades ago when it was a less expensive alternative to coastal living than Santa Monica.

"This community will always be vulnerable," La Monte said.

But for those who savor what it can be again, "the tradeoff is generally worth it."

And there is even a sense of gratitude that, as horrific as was the Woolsey fire, it was orders of magnitude less severe than what, in the Sierra foothills 400 miles to the north, the Camp Fire inflicted on Paradise.

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