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Displaced by Woolsey fire, Malibu families gather for a meal and hugs

Displaced by Woolsey fire, Malibu families gather for a meal and hugs
Robin Levy, whose home burned down in Malibu, holds her dog Violet while being hugged by friend Yvette Kleiser at a "Happy Friendsgiving" at Santa Monica High School on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Jacqueline and Juliette Laplante, 16-year-old twins, wanted to wait in the car.

But their father, Leo, coaxed them into the Santa Monica High School cafeteria.

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“You need clothes,” he told them. “They have clothes.”

The Laplantes were among about 400 people who took part in a Tuesday event called Happy Friendsgiving, which was organized by local teachers and other school district employees to help those whose lives were disrupted by the Woolsey fire, which swept through Malibu last week. The fire killed three, burned 97,000 acres and destroyed 1,500 structures.

Many have no home to return to, including the Laplantes. The local school district estimates that about 150 families of students and staff members lost their homes in the wildfire. All were welcome to a Thanksgiving-style meal and donations of supplies, toiletries, clothes and toys.

There are four public schools in Malibu, part of a school system that includes neighboring Santa Monica. The Malibu campuses have been closed since Nov. 9, affecting about 1,600 students, said Gail Pinsker, the district’s community and public relations officer. The schools suffered no significant damage, but they have been off limits because of the fire and now must be deep-cleaned. Crews also will be testing the air quality.

Heavy rainfall could bring treacherous mudslides, so officials have authorized the installation of fencing and sandbags to lessen this potential threat. Some rainfall is expected to move through the area starting Wednesday evening.

On Wednesday, district officials were evaluating how soon they could reopen the city’s four schools: Webster Elementary, Point Dume Marine Science School, Juan Cabrillo Elementary and Malibu High.

Robin Levy, right, whose home burned down in Malibu, is greeted with gifts from children of friends at a "Happy Friendsgiving" at Santa Monica High School on Tuesday.
Robin Levy, right, whose home burned down in Malibu, is greeted with gifts from children of friends at a "Happy Friendsgiving" at Santa Monica High School on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Santa Monica campuses remained open, which has allowed the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to offer child supervision during school hours at Olympic High. Lunch is provided for students who check in by 9:30 a.m. Students also can temporarily transfer to schools that remain open. And a counselor at Malibu High is working to keep all seniors current in their college applications.

Tuesday’s event was organized by teachers, including Dee Dee Cooper, the marine science teacher and library coordinator at the Point Dume campus. The event came about when “about 10 teachers and staff ... wanted to do something to help right after the fires,” Cooper said. “We are a tight-knit group of schools.”

Donations came in quickly from district employees and families. And on Tuesday, Cooper and other volunteers dished out turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing, not to mention pecan pie, apple pie, cookies and homemade doughnuts onto paper plates. And the collection of free gifts, dropped off by local firefighters and others, included basketballs, footballs, eight different Barbies, stuffed animals and Mr. Potato Head and other board games.

The event was a respite from a difficult time for Leo Laplante, a custom furniture craftsman who has lived in Malibu for 39 years. As the fire approached the cul de sac where they live, he sent his wife and daughters away to safety. He stayed behind for some eight hours, fighting to save his house and workshop.

The pressure in his hose sputtered. Laplante, 69, kept going with buckets of water he had filled earlier. He refilled from the Jacuzzi, whose lid quickly melted. But there were too many embers. The other houses on the street also were going up.

He stumbled to a meadow that already had burned and sat to watch as flames consumed his memories and his work. He then hurried to his car and fought his way down the hill through black smoke.

He’s upset that city officials didn’t plan better and that firefighters never reached his street in time, but he’s also been stunned by acts of kindness.

“I can’t even tell you how it feels,” said Laplante during the Friendsgiving event. “I’m running into people I know from Malibu — the principal, teachers, friends. This is just people serving people. It doesn’t get better than that.”

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“My kids are running into their friends,” he added. “They have the biggest smiles I’ve seen since the fire.

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