California Fires Create New Problem: Thousands of Refugees
Horses left to survive on beaches. Families with nothing but the clothes they wear. Parts of Malibu are uninhabitable.
SANTA MONICA, California—When his brother woke him early on Friday morning, warning him of an evacuation call for the fire heading towards their family home in Malibu, surfer Amour Armony thought he was joking.
But five days later, his home—like many of Malibu’s residents’ houses—and all of his family’s belongings, are history. The Woolsey Fire is estimated to have wiped out at least 400 homes and official figures say that might rise to as many as 5,000. (The Camp Fire in Northern California has swallowed more than 9,000 homes.)
“All I own now is the clothing I was wearing that day,” Armony said at a town-hall meeting for displaced Malibu locals on Tuesday night.
Armony’s father was out of town with his two- and five-year-old brothers. Meanwhile, Armony and his brother spent most of Friday ferrying the family’s horses to the nearby safety of the beach, leaving them on the sand as other horse owners did from the neighborhood. They returned home and stayed until around 5 p.m. when the flames barreling towards were finally too close.
“My brother and I were putting our lives on the line, trying to get out as many people as we could,” Armony said. “The winds were going 50 miles an hour. You can only imagine how fast the flames were.”
Firefighters, preoccupied and spread thin, never came, he said.
“Then we got to a point where we couldn’t take it anymore. My eyes were watering. The smoke was really tough. Everything got to a point where it was too dangerous,” Armony said. “We saw the fire coming down the mountain fast. I got my birth certificate and passport. I wish I had saved more.
Fortunately, they devised a getaway plan in advance.
“We parked the car at the bottom of the street, then hiked back to the house,” he said. “We made sure we had a way out because we didn’t want to get locked in.”
It was fortunate for his neighbor, too.
“We saved a neighbor’s life by pulling him out as a tree behind him caught on fire,” Armony said.
Armony first learned that his home was gone from a friend who had snuck back to their street, near Point Dume. After the fire was gone, he returned to see it for himself.
“It was pretty shocking, but I didn’t really feel the emotions until I showed up to the house. The steps were still there, but the door wasn’t,” he said. “I looked down into a 30-foot ditch. I got this huge wave of heat from everything burning that hit my face. Then it really hit me.”
At the town-hall meeting, local officials and first responders faced questions from the fire refugees. When would it be safe to return? Would businesses be able to re-open when residents go home? Why couldn’t people get in to at least see if their homes still stand? There weren’t many answers: Malibu’s residents who remain under a mandatory evacuation order as the Woolsey Fire continues to burn after torching more than 90,000 acres.
“We don’t want people going in there and telling someone their home burnt down when it’s maybe the garage or an outhouse,” Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman said.
Others too have defied orders and stayed behind, like John Iannone’s neighbors at Point Dume Club, a mobile home park where properties can cost as much as $3 million. Lannone said he was grateful they were keeping fires at bay. It took him nearly five hours to drive 27 miles to Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway on Friday, when evacuation orders called for people to leave.
“We spent one night in one hotel. Then one in another. Then another,” Iannone said. “But I’m lucky that my insurance company has now sorted something out. I’m lucky I had the means but not everyone does. I’m still so grateful for everything I have. Waking up next to my high-school sweetheart each day.”
In Thousand Oaks, which has been struck by both fires and a massacre last week at a bar, killing 12 people, the Red Cross has turned a sports hall the California Lutheran University into temporary shelter for the displaced. Rows of cots fill the giant hall with stacks of food supplies places outside the doors. Cupcakes were courtesy of a local bakery. Three warm meals are served each day.
“Everyone affected is welcome here. Food helps establish some sort of sense of normality,” said spokesperson Nicole Maul. “For many this is just the beginning. Some will have nowhere to go home to.”
The majority of people still cannot get back to find out what has been lost, but people at the Malibu meeting were friendly and cheerful, despite the circumstances.
Seth Jacobson had prepared to evacuate his family by packing their belongings into labeled boxes to take from their home on Coral Canyon, before fleeing on Friday. “We watched the fire approach for about six-and-a-half hours,” he said.
Jacobson has managed to talk his way in to see his home, but others haven’t been as lucky.
“The entire canyon is burnt. We will be out for three months minimum. But we were prepared and found a temporary home. I’ve been through it before in 2008,” he said.
Malibu is also home to many animals whose refuge has also now been destroyed.
“If you think it’s bad for us think of the wildlife,” he said, pulling up a photo of a lone coyote standing on a burnt-out mountain near his home. “There’s a lot of people working to help the animals,” he said. “They have got nothing left.”