If Hadn’t Been Here, My House Wouldn’t Be Here’

A com­mu­nity of tight-knit Mal­ibu res­i­dents, many of them below-the-line work­ers in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, bat­tle flare-ups from the Woolsey Fire — and watch each other’s backs

Variety - - Close– Up - Story by GENE MAD­DAUS

RITA COSSETTE WAS in Nashville last week when she got word that her home of 33 years had been rav­aged by fire. A friend called to say she had checked on her res­i­dence at Point Dume, and there was noth­ing left ex­cept a Buddha statue and a stone fig­urine. The friend re­trieved the Buddha and seat­belted it into her car, for safe­keep­ing.

When she re­ceived the dev­as­tat­ing news, Cossette, who has worked for years as a stage man­ager on award shows like the Os­cars and the Em­mys, was work­ing on the Coun­try Mu­sic Awards show. Rather than fly home, she de­cided to stay put and go on with the event.

“It’s hard be­ing away. You try to close your mind off and fo­cus on work,” she says. “My mind is so clouded, but we did get the show off with­out a hitch.” The Woolsey fire, which has de­stroyed 1,500 struc­tures and claimed three lives, has been doc­u­mented on celebrities’ In­sta­gram sto­ries and Twit­ter feeds. Some stars, in­clud­ing Liam Hemsworth and Robin Thicke, lost their homes. But Mal­ibu is more than a celebrity en­clave. It is also home to a lot of mid­dle- class peo­ple, in­clud­ing those who work in Hol­ly­wood’s below-the-line trades. In the face of the disas­ter, they came to­gether to pro­tect each other’s homes and to share food, fuel and in­for­ma­tion.

A week af­ter the fire jumped the 101 free­way and raced into the canyons to­ward the sea, the com­mu­nity was still largely cut off from the out­side world. Work­ing side by side, neigh­bors be­gan the long process of re­cov­ery.

David Hays lives just west of Zuma Beach at the bot­tom of Tran­cas Canyon, which is home to Mal­ibu West, a com­mu­nity of 177 tract homes and 60 con­do­mini­ums. When the fire broke out on Nov. 8, he was one of seven peo­ple who stayed be­hind to fight the flames. About 20 homes burned. “The fire was mov­ing so fast — it was the best we could do,” says Hays, who works at a post­pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in Santa Mon­ica. “If I hadn’t been here, my house wouldn’t be here,” he tells a Va­ri­ety re­porter on the scene.

In the after­math, Hays was work­ing with a group at the Mal­ibu West Beach Club, which had be­come a place of refuge for home­own­ers who stayed be­hind. Pal­lets of bot­tled wa­ter and toi­let pa­per were stacked up on the front steps. “There’s no Red Cross out here,” Hays says. “There’s noth­ing. The neigh­bor­hood and the com­mu­nity have got­ten to­gether.”

Mal­ibu re­mained closed last week, with Sher­iff’s check­points along PCH. Many res­i­dents did not want to risk leav­ing their homes and not be al­lowed back. But stores re­mained closed, and the power was out, and many were run­ning low on es­sen­tials.

The club­house has a gen­er­a­tor, so res­i­dents gath­ered there to cook meals and take show­ers. Some spent the night at the club­house rather than go home, and some came by to fill their cars from gas can­is­ters.

“We have been cook­ing din­ners from scratch for 40 to 50 peo­ple,” says Lynda Ri­ley, who was among the or­ga­niz­ers.

Restau­rant Nobu Mal­ibu also got into the com­mu­nity spirit, host­ing two din­ners for fire­fight­ers and other first re­spon­ders last week. On Nov. 11, ex­ec­u­tive chef Gre­go­rio Stephen­son got word that he would be es­corted into Mal­ibu for the oc­ca­sion. “We made a run to Vons at Sun­set and PCH, and we bought $1,200 to $1,300 worth of gro­ceries,” he says. “It was very last-minute.”

He and a hand­ful of vol­un­teers also emp­tied the re­frig­er­a­tors at Nobu, serv­ing prime rib, black cod and rock shrimp for 150 peo­ple. The park­ing lot was full of fire trucks and emer­gency ve­hi­cles. “They came in here cov­ered in soot,” he says, ad­ding that one group left a siz­able tip. Two nights later, they brought in sushi from Nobu Los An­ge­les and served an­other 100 peo­ple, and made an ad­di­tional 150 to-go bags.

Stephen­son lives in an apart­ment on Point Dume, and has not been able to re­turn home since the fire. “It’s very apoc­a­lyp­tic,” he says. “It’s sur­real.”

I’ve de­liv­ered some very bad news this week.”

Jerri Churchill, stage man­ager and Mal­ibu res­i­dent

Mar­cus Shi­rock, an ac­tor whose cred­its in­clude “Her­cules Re­born” and “An­droid Cop,” lives in a back­house on Point Dume. The night of the fire, em­bers landed in the yard, and he put out the flames with a gar­den hose. “There were tor­na­does of wind along the beach,” Shi­rock says. “The wind picked up em­bers, and they fell a mile away.”

Sev­eral nearby homes burned to the ground, as Point Dume was among the areas hard­est hit by the fire.

At Par­adise Cove, Dick Hav­er­ick was stand­ing on the end of a creaky pier, watch­ing boats shut­tle back and forth to the beach, de­liv­er­ing sup­plies. He comes out here sev­eral times a day to make calls. Since the fire, he can’t get a sig­nal any­where else.

“I call it ‘the phone booth,’” says Hav­er­ick, 75, a re­tired Hol­ly­wood trades­man who worked for decades as an en­gi­neer on ABC shows like “Wel­come Back, Kot­ter,” and “Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal.” He bought his trailer at Par­adise Cove 30 years ago for $80,000. Now it’s worth more than $1 mil­lion.

When the fire swept through, he put to­gether a series of gar­den hoses and ran around putting out spot fires. He fell a few times, scram­bling over un­even ground. The fire came within yards of his trailer; he scrolled through pho­tos show­ing fire­fight­ers bat­tling the blaze from his roof. “This is a small com­mu­nity,” he says. “Every­body wants to be here. And they watch each other. There are no se­crets. But as my wife says, ‘We might talk about you, but if you’re in trou­ble, we’ll bring you what you need.’”

Jerri Churchill, a stage man­ager on “Amer­ica’s Fun­ni­est Home Videos,” lives in Cor­ral Canyon, which burned a decade ago. Her home was spared at that time, though houses on ei­ther side were de­stroyed. Af­ter that, the com­mu­nity bought its own fire en­gine, not want­ing to rely on the fire de­part­ment. When the time came to use it, she says the en­gine was com­man­deered. Her neigh­bors were left to fight the fire with shov­els and dirt. “Thank God peo­ple stayed be­hind,” she says. “My neigh­bor Steve Woods saved my home with a gar­den hose.”

Since the Woolsey Fire broke out, Churchill has been work­ing with her hus­band as a

vol­un­teer for the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment. When Mal­ibu City Coun­cil­man Jef­fer­son Wag­ner, aka “Zuma Jay,” a long­time stunt­man, was in­jured in an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to save his home, she was among those who helped es­cort him out.

Churchill is plugged into the com­mu­nity from years of rais­ing chil­dren there and at­tend­ing kids’ birth­day par­ties. She has been check­ing on peo­ple’s homes, and keep­ing a run­ning tally on her Face­book page of the de­struc­tion. She’s the friend who had to tell Rita Cossette that her home had burned to the ground.

“I’ve de­liv­ered some very bad news this week,” she says.

Churchill takes pho­to­graphs and videos for peo­ple who are still un­able to re­turn. Even the “good” news is not that good, she says. The homes that were not de­stroyed have been in­un­dated with smoke. “This no­tion of ‘Well, ev­ery­thing’s OK’ — no, ev­ery­thing is not OK,” she says. “Ev­ery sin­gle per­son is go­ing to have to re­place ev­ery mat­tress, ev­ery pil­low.”

Churchill says she un­der­stands that peo­ple are ea­ger to re­turn but warns her neigh­bors that it’s not safe yet. “These power lines are down across road­ways. There are trees across road­ways. The crews are work­ing around the clock,” she says. “Once you have a big in­flux of peo­ple, it’s go­ing to slow the re­cov­ery process down.” In all her con­ver­sa­tions, Churchill says ev­ery­one seems com­mit­ted to re­build­ing. “There’s no talk of leav­ing,” she says. “This is our home.”

Mal­ibu may be best known for its many star res­i­dents, but the com­mu­nity is tight-knit enough that fame doesn’t re­ally mat­ter, says Churchill. It’s like surf­ing — ev­ery­one is swim­ming in the same wa­ter.

“There’s no dis­tinc­tion there,” she says. “Every­body is very much in this to­gether.”

Path of De­struc­tion The shell of a car is all that’s left in this par­cel in Mal­ibu Park. More than 150 homes were lost in the neigh­bor­hood.

Beach Bri­gade Mal­ibu res­i­dents un­load sup­plies from a boat in Par­adise Cove.

Of­fi­cial Visit Pres­i­dent Trump (sec­ond from left) tours the Woolsey Fire-rav­aged neigh­bor­hood on Dume Drive in Mal­ibu with first re­spon­ders on Nov. 17, nine days af­ter the fire broke out.

Fight­ing the Blaze David Hays, who works at a post­pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity, man­aged to save his home and worked with neigh­bors to save oth­ers.

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