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‘Other’ Malibu in the news

Times Staff Writers

It is a tale of one city with two distinct personalities.

Seaward of Pacific Coast Highway are most of the billionaires, film stars and other celebrities who own oceanfront homes that unfurl like flowers onto Malibu’s quasi-private beaches.

On the other side of PCH, especially up the rugged canyons, are residents of a different kind. Some are wealthy, to be sure, but many are professional class or lucky longtime homeowners who bought in early.

The inland residents of Malibu are known for something else: Their homes, more frequently, are the ones that burn.

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“There are two kinds of Malibu,” said Mayor Jeff Jennings, recalling a description of his longtime home. “There is the beach Malibu. And there is the rocks and cactus and coyote-ate-the-cat kind of Malibu.”

The 53 houses lost in the weekend’s Corral fire fall in the latter category, Jennings said. Concentrated in rugged Corral, Latigo and Sycamore canyons, most of them are “relatively modest homes built on quarter-acre or half-acre lots,” he said. “I know a bunch of these folks. Some are teachers, some are real estate guys and some are working in the movie business. They’re not movie stars.”

Nancy Gauthier, 62, a critical-care nurse who now works as a systems analyst at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, lost her home on Lockwood Road in Corral Canyon, which she bought in 1978 for $150,000. All that remains are a few concrete steps leading up to what used to be a front door.

She’s been through many fires. “Every time, you lose a few inches off your teeth because you grind them,” she said. Still, she loves the tight-knit community, the location, the view.

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“Where else can you see the bobcats and see the mountains and see the ocean and still be reasonably close to the city?” Gauthier said.

The neighbor directly behind her property, Jackie Robbins, a leather clothing designer, lost her home of more than 30 years. So did Wendy Keller, a literary agent, who would host a block party four times a year. Neighbor Steve Woods, a carpenter, played guitar at those gatherings.

Woods came home after a Thanksgiving hiking trip in Big Sur to find his house damaged but still standing. And, much to his relief, he found a note saying that a neighbor had rescued his dog.

The fire gutted the top floor of his house and his kitchen and demolished the wooded deck. “My backyard is like Baghdad,” he said Monday, sizing up the damage with an insurance inspector.

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Despite fatigue and disillusionment, the neighbors brightened when asked about their remote and rustic community. It is the farthest one up Corral Canyon Road, the one closest to state and federal parklands that straddle the mountains above them. They love the quick access to hiking trails, the views of mountains and the sea, the wildlife and the friendliness of neighbors.

On Monday, friends wearing dust masks helped Robbins pick through the blackened rubble of her home and attached leather-working studio. One of the few things left intact was a pink fiberglass surfboard with inlaid kelp fronds that Woods had made for her. She suspects a firefighter rescued the board after she had fled to safety.

“All that media talks about are the celebrities. But really, the people of Malibu have a lot of character,” Robbins said. “They are really kind. They really show up for their neighbors. Every time there has been a disaster and there’s been lots of them -- fire, floods, earthquakes, high tides -- the day after you walk into the market and people are hugging. It’s a small community and a small-town mentality.”

Warren Allen, an aerospace engineer, and his wife, Patricia, were among the most fortunate in the neighborhood. Firefighters took a stand at their house on Lockwood Road and saved it from everything -- except a coating of ash in each room.

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“These are working people up here,” Allen said. “They all get up. They all have a job. They all have kids.”

The mood was somber at Lily’s Cafe near Point Dume in Malibu. Owner Lily Castro said she recognized many of her customers on television, standing next to piles of burnt ash where their houses had once stood.

“It’s sad,” Castro said. “You can see it in their faces.”

Christine Rodgerson, a real estate agent who has lived on Corral Canyon Road for two decades, said the public has a misperception that only the rich and famous were affected by the Corral fire.

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She characterized her clientele as a mixture of incomes and ages.

“The wealthy people here are a very small minority,” Rodgerson said. “There are people that have lived here for decades. You have a lot of people that are buying their first homes, straining to buy their first homes. There’s a lot of working families and young professionals.”

Of course, that’s not true in some communities, especially exclusive gated enclaves such as the Malibu Colony and Serra Retreat, and at the mansions that stand shoulder-to-shoulder at Broad and Carbon beaches where glitterati tend to congregate -- even if only for occasional weekend retreats.

Although past fires have sometimes burned to the sea, this one was contained to the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, sparing the ritzier communities of this 27-mile-long city sandwiched between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

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Demographic data show that Malibu has a higher-than-average turnover rate, a phenomenon that doesn’t surprise Madelyn Glickfeld, a lecturer at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment.

“It’s nuts living out here, you have to be certified,” said Glickfeld, who has lived in Malibu since the 1970s and watched flames consume her house in Las Flores Canyon in 1993. She and her husband, a tax attorney, now live on Point Dume, closer to the protective moisture of the sea.

“I count 10 fires that I’ve been through plus an unknown number of floods,” she said. “Anyone who lives here and keeps rebuilding and rebuilding needs to be checking in with someone.”

Real estate agents, a primary occupation in Malibu, know that once the smoke subsides, there always seems to be someone willing to take a gamble for a piece of paradise.

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Attorney Marc Toberoff was one of those drawn to Malibu eight years ago from New York City, in pursuit of the California dream view. “I would wake up, sit up and look at the ocean,” he said of his beloved Spanish-style house, which burned to the ground.

He’s looking for a place for him and his wife and three kids to stay in his adoptive community while he rebuilds.

“We’re looking for anybody with a guest home in Malibu,” Toberoff said.

“The rents are so high in Malibu. We just need to get back on our feet.”

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

ken.weiss@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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