As someone who tends to fear little things, I’ve learned to redirect my thoughts when they go from the standard concern to an irrational spiral toward an epic catastrophe. My sons call me Worst Case Scenario Mom when I go too far, yet I slay many of my childhood fears with my redirection approach.
One fear from my childhood became a real event this past November.
The possibility of destruction always loomed over us as we lived in the fire-prone landscape at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. For forty-six years we rode out the dangers of droughts, dry chaparral, acres of flames, and near misses. This luck literally went up in smoke the afternoon of November 9, 2018, when the Woolsey Fire raged through Malibu, CA.
I was in the sixth grade during the 1978 Agoura-Malibu firestorm when dry brush and the Santa Ana winds fueled the flames from Agoura to the Pacific Ocean. As the smoke massed over the mountains, we packed our cars and drove down to Zuma Beach to wait out the destruction. Huddled with fellow evacuees, including horses and other livestock from the ranches and farms that dotted the hillsides, we watched and waited.
I wandered on the beach with my dog as the flames rolled down the mountains sending showers of sparks down the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway.
“Please, God, Please!” a woman prayed aloud as the fire swirled around her house in full view of the beach.
All at once, the house burst into flames from within. The windows exploded, and the fire suffocated the building and the woman’s prayer. Some people comforted her, and I moved on down the beach feeling as raw and vulnerable as the landscape around me.
Late that night as we drove back up into our neighborhood in Malibu Park, past the smoldering remains of familiar houses, we held our breath as we turned onto our street. By sheer luck, the flames had left a swath of land untouched that left most of our street, including our house, intact.
Three years later, we woke up on an early December morning with smoke already inside our house. The field behind our backyard was in flames. The Santa Ana winds had knocked a powerline down and sparked a small fire that burnt at least one house before it raced down the hill to our street. The firefighters, my family, and neighbors, were able to contain it before it spread and destroyed anything else.
For decades after our near misses, our house stayed out of the path of the major fires in Malibu, but we still worried. My parents took emergency preparedness courses. They cleared the brush around their home. They cut down trees. They made evacuation lists. The fire never came.
I eventually left Malibu for Washington state. Even here, with our abundant rainfall, I think of the “what if” options if a brush fire ignited. These dense forests can certainly burn. The past two summers we had many days when our skies filled with smoke from fires in British Columbia and Washington. I’ve considered what would happen if a fire started near my house—the different trajectories, the escape routes, and the outcomes.
On the morning of Nov. 9, 2018, a quick scan of the news prompted a pang of worry. A fire in Southern California had jumped the 101 Freeway. Once a fire jumps the 101, the fire will likely burn to the coast. This is Southern California fire logic. I read Malibu was under mandatory evacuation.
I called my parents. They were packing and had a plan. Of course, they had a plan.
Every break I had from work that day, I scanned social media, clicked on news links, and texted my brothers. My parents were out of cell range, but they had been seen by a family friend. They were on Zuma Beach.
During my lunch, I watched live news footage. A helicopter flew over the fire, but I couldn’t tell where it was exactly. I studied the vertiginous sweep of canyons and red-tiled roofs, flames, and smoke. For a second, the screen flashed an overlay of street names, and it hit me. This is our neighborhood. For just a moment, I saw our street and the blobs of house-sized fires hazed in smoke. The camera peeled away to survey another burning neighborhood.
Malibu Park is a mix of old timers, like my parents, in their ranch houses and the fancier types, with astonishing Mediterranean-inspired estates. Celebrities and rumored international royal family members live in square footage enough to get lost in. Mixed up is everything else imaginable—converted garages, sleek steel and glass rectangles, and even an ornate replica Victorian. Dog trainers live next door to physicians, plumbers, retired rock stars, teachers, and real estate agents.
My parents’ house was classic, a house with an iconic and timeless feel—the original midcentury pink bathtub, the double-sided brick fireplace that showcased the kitchen and living room, and the quilted design my mom made tacked carefully to the living room ceiling, between wooden rafters, to hide the popcorn texture above.
It was a laidback house with comfy seating, heaps of books, and a big table in the kitchen where we feasted on excellent meals. Out front, on the brick porch, we had a weathered rocker for sea gazing. Some things were not perfect, like my old bedroom which still had the ugly black and hot pink stripes I made on the closet door (it was the 80s after all).
On that November afternoon, after the fire had made its way to the coast, my dad walked up from Zuma Beach treading carefully, hyper-aware of the dangers of hotspots and fallen power lines. He couldn’t go all the way to the property, but he went far enough to see what remained. Only the fireplace stood on what had once been our homesite.
Later, I found out my parents had first settled in the parking lot for Malibu Park High School where they could keep an eye on their street. But as the fire came down the mountains, they told me the flames funneled into whirls and made deep undulating sounds like massive gears on some horrible machine. They feared for their lives and fled to the beach.
Hearing the news of the growing numbers of fatalities in the recent California fires, my heart breaks. I am grateful that my parents and others are alive. This is what’s most important. Yet, there’s no denying a profound sense of loss. My greatest fear about my family home has always been that one day it would burn down. Now it has.
This was the home my brothers and I returned to often and brought our own children to share in the experience. It was my escape when the dark winters of Orcas Island got me down. It was our home—the one we moved into in 1972–not perfect but one we accepted and loved, with all the idiosyncrasies, like a member of the family.
My parents plan to rebuild. After the rubble is removed and a new home is constructed, there will be new charms and comforts. After all, the essentials stay the same. The vibrant pink and orange glow of the winter sunsets will still happen. The hummingbirds will return to fight over the bottlebrush flowers. At night, we’ll hear the waves as they break and roll down Zuma Beach. It will be home.
Despite everything, a new home will rise from the ashes.
We hang onto this hope as tight as we can.