The sun reflects brilliantly off the waves of the Pacific, throwing shadows on the charred hills where tufts of green were just starting to emerge from blackened soil. “There’s no place like home” plays on the radio.
The last embers from the Woolsey fire — the destructive wildfire that burned close to a hundred thousand acres in the course of a few days in November in Los Angeles and Ventura counties — may be dead, but now former residents are starting to return and grapple with rebuilding their lives. Rick Mullen, the mayor of Malibu, likened the area to a post-apocalyptic landscape, comparing the energy released to devastate the region to being “nuclear in scale.” In contrast to the complete devastation of Paradise in Northern California, Malibu is a surreal patchwork of suburban properties with only minor scorch marks that have been decked out with holiday cheer, next to devastated empty lots, as if meteors had struck every third house.
“If you get there a little early, feel free to walk around,” Erin Shirk texts. She’s arranged for me to meet her grandparents, Jim and Marcella Shirk, on a Sunday afternoon at what was left of their home on Kanan Dume Road in Malibu. Just a fragment of the house’s blue wooden fence still stands, leaving the guts of the property in full view of the neighborhood: a few brick columns, rubble that’s been moved into neat piles, and a burnt-out Model A Ford from the 1920s.
A dozen neighbors and family members gather and mingle with the Shirk grandparents while I talk about their rebuilding a week before Christmas. One brings out a wooden sign, like a theatrical backdrop, painted with the words: “Happy 92 Papa Jim.” On November 6th — two days before the fires ignited and consumed this house and destroyed 1,643 structures and damaged 364 others in two counties — Jim turned 92. The nonagenarian’s story is like many others in this aging community affected by the blaze: They are determined to rebuild their houses as they were, though they may not live to see construction completed.
The elderly couple are both dressed for the holidays — Marcella wearing earrings shaped like bells and a pin of a cat in a Santa hat. “It has been one miracle after another,” she says. They’re thankful for a GoFundMe page their granddaughter Sarah set up in the aftermath of the fire to help with reconstruction costs for her fixed-income grandparents. The fundraising page surpassed its goal to raise $10,730 in a month with 156 donations from around the world, with over 90 percent $100 or less.
Kindness from strangers was a recurring theme in the Marcella’s stories about the fire, from a stranger in the next booth at IHoP who picked up their tab without a word the morning after they were evacuated, to a health insurance representative on the phone who found a loophole in the rules to replace a sleep apnea machine and invited the couple to her house for Thanksgiving dinner if they had nowhere to go. “We are very, very strong believers.” Marcella says. “God has been good to us.”
“We moved in here in 1977,” she explains. “It was the cheapest land in L.A. County. Over half of us here [in Malibu] are old timers, plain old folks like us.” Marcella had a career in sales for various pet food companies, while Jim was a bricklayer. When the couple moved onto the property, they lived with two teenagers in a one-bedroom shed, gradually building out over the years into a family complex made up of two houses and a mobile home on an acre of land.
The house at the top of the hill and the mobile home burned, and years of memories and sentimental objects with it; Jim jokes that his family was always trying to get him to get rid of stuff. The house at the bottom of the hill survived, though, where the couple’s starter shed once stood. They gave me oranges to take home from the trees around it, which also escaped the fire.
The Shirks are planning on spending Christmas eve at this surviving house, where two of their adult children now live.
“We’ve gone through a few fires,” Marcella said. “The fence has gone up twice in smoke — the next one is going to be cement!” This couple has seen their share of suffering, and seem resolute in the face of this latest loss. Jim grew up during the depression in small-town Indiana, and fought for the Navy during World War II, where he was wounded on D-Day on the beach in Normandy. Meanwhile, Marcella was born in Czechoslovakia, and her family escaped first to Singapore and then, when the Japanese invaded, to Australia. “We were part of a convoy of three ships,” she explains, “and the other two were torpedoed.” From Australia, Marcella came to America to study art and met Jim.
“We’ve been married for 62 years,” Jim says, with a twinkle in his eye. “If you can survive that…” They both laugh.
Marcella and Jim hail their neighbor as a hero, and bring him over to talk, despite his objections. He owned his own fire fighting gear and hose, and when the water stopped working during the fires, he used a pump to get water from his pool to fight the flames. He’s a Hollywood producer, he explains, and managed to save most of the livestock on his land, including one of the llamas that were featured in the movie Water for Elephants.
In contrast to her neighbor’s heroics, Marcella fumes about the city’s response, both during and after the fire. “In the old days, we had help!” she says, telling me that she saw fire trucks sitting at the bottom of the hill while their home burned. Her granddaughter claims that they called the city first, then the fire department, to no avail, before finally calling ABC7 — the nightly news. Jim and Marcella may have moved into Malibu as “plain old folks,” but you don’t live around the corner from Hollywood for that long without learning that sometimes the quickest way to get something done is to be on TV.
The Kanan Dume Road property was a family compound, and a portrait quickly emerged of a family who knows the importance of telling their story and telling it well. From the GoFundMe page to an ABC7 interview, to the family’s willingness to stage a mini-reunion just to speak with this writer, the Shirks weren’t going to let the fire stop them from crafting their own narrative, making sense of this tragedy by telling its story themselves. Marcella shares her worries about dealing with the city in rebuilding, telling me that she’s heard horror stories of people not being allowed to reconstruct their homes where they were.
So far, despite skeptical ecologists and historians who warn that the natural ecology of the Southern California hills includes inevitable destructive fires every 20 years or so, local government agencies have responded to the Woolsey fire by relaxing rules so residents could rebuild their properties exactly as they were. Ironically, some of the regulations going by the wayside to grandfather in rebuilt homes are updated fire safety standards. Other regulations have been relaxed to allow residents who have been living with family, friends, and in hotels since the fire to return to their properties and live in trailers. “We are planning to pull a mobile home on site to live in while we build,” Marcella says.
The Shirks have both the plans and means for rebuilding, but for many other older adults the legal and financial obstacles are too great, and they don’t know what will come next. Billy Green Bush was a character actor on everything from M*A*S*H to The Dukes of Hazard, but the 84-year-old divorcee didn’t have homeowners insurance when the house he’d built decades ago burned down. He’s still having trouble qualifying for FEMA assistance, which is capped at only $34,900, because one of his adult children is also on the lease. Bush told me he doesn’t have the stamina to rebuild himself, and he doesn’t trust anyone else to build to his standards. He’s been living in his 1957 Dodge van since the fire with his dog, and the van was having trouble starting when we spoke. But even in these circumstances, his fire story slid easily into evangelism when asked about his plans for the holidays. “You should give thanks every minute of every day,” he said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, and every day is Christmas for me.” It made me think of Marcella Shirk’s unshakable faith, and her earrings shaped like bells.
Pondering what it means to make new life from the ashes, I asked former California poet laureate Dana Gioia, who took in a family of five strangers in the wake of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, for a poem recommendation. He offered Sonia Greenfield’s “Ghost Ship,” written after the titular Oakland warehouse venue burned: “You can’t live in fear of the apparition…/ it can happen any time to anyone…/ you have to dance / as if the very act of living depends on it.” And the men and women who plan to rebuild and remain in Malibu after these latest devastating fires are doing just that.