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Malibu residents help one another as they struggle to get their lives back — or just get into town

Malibu residents help one another as they struggle to get their lives back — or just get into town
Law enforcement checks the IDs of residents returning home to Malibu earlier this week after evacuation order was lifted for some area residents. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The 76 Station at the corner of Corral Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu opened Saturday morning and quickly became a gathering spot for residents fill up, tell stories of their efforts to save one another’s homes and strategize on how to get by with limited utilities and spotty access to the outside world.

“Gas, we’re down to a few gallons,” cashier Cynthia Valencia said, handing two bottles of water to a regular who said he didn’t have his wallet.

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Pacific Coast Highway was blockaded a short distance to the east. Rumors were rife that even residents weren’t being allowed back in.

“Residents can get out. They can’t get in,” said Kelly Pessis, who drove up in a car loaded with food.

“It’s spotty,” said her husband, Steve Breese, adding that access could depend on the officer at the checkpoint.

Breese, a member of the volunteer Corral Canyon Fire Department, had driven alongside his wife in a truck full of generators.

He and others credited volunteers with helping limit damage in Corral Canyon — only 17 homes burned down, he said. The Woolsey fire, however, destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

Grace White sat on the stone wall of the gas station, waiting for a man named John to bring her dinner.

She said John, who also had credentials, had improvised a service for ferrying residents back and forth through the checkpoint.

On this trip, he had a rendezvous with a friend of White’s who had purchased provisions. Her husband got bad news on the phone: Their friend had been turned around and wouldn’t be able to meet John.

While waiting, White and other residents had exchanged vivid memories of the Friday night a week earlier, when the fire blew into El Nido, the lower of Corral Canyon’s two communities.

As the firestorm approached, a woman named Caroline and a Marine named John teamed up on the firefighter hose the community had purchased after the 2007 fire.

“They split the fire,” White said. Their efforts, and a lucky shift in the wind, saved many homes, she said.

After the water pressure failed early Saturday morning, she said, spontaneous teams of residents used hand tools to put out embers and rip burning decks and railings away from houses.

Those who remained then pulled together to get through the week.

“Everybody opens their house,” White said. “We’re sharing showers.”

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Some shared frozen food: “We get to eat steaks,” she said.

Her husband, who didn’t want his name used, found it ironic.

“It’s weird camping out at home,” he said. “There’s no electricity. We just read and go to bed at 8 o’clock.”

Shortly before noon, Chris O’Keefe, in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, walked up from the beach with a fishing rod and a cooler with his catch, four Calico bass.

A sheriff’s deputy on Corral Canyon Road stopped him when he couldn’t produce a picture ID.

“I’ve lived here 40 years,” O’Keefe said. “I have fish on ice that I caught for my mother.”

The deputy was unmoved. O’Keefe said he and his mother had been burned out in 2007 and rebuilt. Their house survived this fire.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll get a ride. It’s entertaining.”

By noon, the gas had run out. Station attendants blocked the pumps with yellow tape.

Later, Anita Lam parked outside the station while her husband waited at the house up the canyon. With her baby in the car and a pepper gun at her hip, she propped her laptop on the trunk.

She had made trips like this that morning to use the internet. This time was to check a propane service call. She learned that the driver couldn’t get through because of the president’s arrival to survey the damages.

“I don’t know why Donald Trump needs to come here now,” she said.

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