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Finding gratitude among the loss inflicted by wildfire in Calabasas and Malibu

Woolsey fire victim Sheryl Evans shares her story.

Sheryl Evans’ plan for Thanksgiving was to make more memories in the home she shared with her 9-year-old son, Nathan.

Instead, the week leading up to the holiday was spent sifting through deep piles of ash and charred wood in the skeleton of what was once a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Calabasas.

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The backyard, where Evans taught Nathan how to play baseball, has a melted trampoline and green hairlike threads that used to be Christmas lights. The tire swing that hung from the pine tree in the frontyard is gone, either burned or stolen. Only the chimney stands where the den was. The mantel, now a four-foot piece of burnt wood, sits on the chimney.

Walking through the remains of the home Wednesday, Evans pointed to the nails still in the mantel wood.

“We used to hang our stockings on here every year,” she said.

The single mom hopes to find long-term housing for her and her son by Christmas.

Two weeks ago, Evans, 45, woke up to her mother, Sue, screaming that the Woolsey fire was burning the home across the street. Evans had stayed awake through Thursday night into Friday morning, watching the blaze to the west. By sunrise, it looked like the fire had stopped burning. Evans thought she was safe to sleep.

The family had minutes to evacuate. Evans, leaving only with the clothes she was wearing, raced around her frontyard in socks to spray the fire with the hose as it burned the corner of her roof. She had rented the home for more than four years and didn’t have insurance. They lost everything.

For about 10 days, she has used sifter boxes and shovels — left by a friendly stranger — to search for anything left.

Her phone is full of text messages and voicemails. The community of friends, family and strangers that has reached out has left her feeling grateful.

“Honestly, it’s really what’s getting me through,” she said.

The Woolsey fire started Nov. 8 at 2:24 p.m. and charred 96,949 acres, starting near Bell Canyon and burning southwest into Oak Park, Calabasas and Malibu as well as other nearby communities. It scorched about 83% of national park land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

An estimated 1,500 structures were destroyed and another 341 damaged. Three people died.

The fire is fully contained, but the recovery effort for the hundreds of affected residents will take months, if not years.

On Thursday, some found respite in the Malibu Strong community Thanksgiving meal at Pepperdine University, hosted by several local organizations.

Candace Brown would normally be cooking a Thanksgiving meal for a small group of friends at the home on Old Chimney Road where she has lived for 26 years with her domestic partner, Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner. Everyone would take turns using the torch to help her cook the top of the creme brulee.

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Instead on Thursday, Brown spent time at the community gathering, which was organized to help anyone who lost their home in the Woolsey fire.

“I would have been cooking all week and having people over — it’s just so bizarre,” Brown said. “The first thing I thought of the next day is, ‘Oh, I need some tweezers.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t even have a pair of tweezers.’ It’s so weird what you think of, but you’ve got to try to think, ‘Gee, I had too much junk anyway.’”

Two weeks ago, Brown was putting out sparks flying through the doors and windows of the three-story home while Wagner was outside with a hose. She evacuated with their orange cat Butch and went to check on Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop. Wagner stayed so long trying to save his house, that he ended up in a hospital’s intensive care unit suffering from smoke inhalation.

“Everybody is going to rebuild, and they’re all saying, ‘We have such a great community’ and, ‘We’re all going to band together,’” she said.

Among those who helped organize the event was Kay Gabbard, 75, whose own home in Malibu Park burned.

About 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, Gabbard and her husband, Bryan, evacuated with their 20-year-old grandson Christian to Zuma Beach with their pets — three pythons, a blue-tongued skink, a California desert tortoise and a Pacman frog — in pillow cases and cages.

Jody Gabbard hugs his mother, Kay Gabbard, at the Malibu Strong community Thanksgiving, where they also volunteered. They lost their Malibu home of 45 years.
Jody Gabbard hugs his mother, Kay Gabbard, at the Malibu Strong community Thanksgiving, where they also volunteered. They lost their Malibu home of 45 years. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Their sons, Jody, 48, and Joshua, 45, attempted to save the house as they had done many times before. But this time, the fire came charging over the hill by their parents’ home. Standing on the roof of the guest home, Jody Gabbard lost sight of his brother. A piece of wood flew off the roof and hit him in the head. It was too chaotic to stop to think of how dangerous it really was.

Down on the beach, Kay Gabbard could see the fire reaching the area where they lived. She didn’t know if her sons could see how close the fire was to them. Her husband and grandson raced away from Zuma Beach to try to drive to the house and save them.

For the next 30 minutes, without any way to contact them, Kay Gabbard waited on the beach fearing her family was dead.

On Thursday, almost two weeks after the fire overtook her home, Gabbard said she didn’t feel like she’d lost a home. She wasn’t going to spend time bemoaning not having a coffeemaker or espresso machine. Things are to be replaced, not grieved.

“What I have is four men in my life that I didn’t think [survived],” she said. “Home is my family and friends — there is no question.”

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