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After Southern California’s Woolsey fire devastated Malibu, some residents return home

After Southern California’s Woolsey fire devastated Malibu, some residents return home
A utility worker watches as President Trump's motorcade heads down Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu on Saturday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As firefighters closed in on full containment of the massive Woolsey fire, evacuation orders were lifted over the weekend for some of the tens of thousands of people who fled devastated areas in and around Malibu and more residents were expected to return to their homes Monday, officials said.

The fire, which has killed three people, blackened more than 96,000 acres and destroyed about 1,130 structures, was 88% contained by Sunday, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. Complete containment was expected by Thursday.

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Some residents of Malibu Colony Cove were allowed back in the neighborhood Saturday and Sunday. But even before the most recent evacuation order was lifted at 2 p.m. Sunday, some residents couldn’t wait any longer. Several complained that authorities did not tell them that once they left their homes for food of supplies, they might not be allowed back.

Valerie and Edward Nalbentian could only wish they had a house to return to. Around noon on Sunday, they walked north along the shoulder of Pacific Coast Highway near Zuma View Place in Malibu, heading to a home they said they knew had burned down.

“We haven’t seen it yet,” Valerie said, her expression grim. “But we’ve seen plenty of pictures.”

The couple had lived in the Point Dume house for only a year and a half, she said, and were now preoccupied with trying to find a place to rent. In just a few days, Valerie said, someone had raised the rent by $2,000 a month amid the booming demand.

“People are renting places without even looking at them because there’s such a shortage,” she said.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department vehicle slowed alongside them and the driver asked if they needed a ride. The Nalbentians took him up on the offer, piling into the two spare seats for the sobering drive up to Point Dume.

Farther south, Mimi Goldfinger cradled a fluffy white dog as she gazed up at the scarred hillside where Latigo Canyon Road meets Pacific Coast Highway. Before, she said, “it was all lush.”

She and her husband, Morris, were waiting to return to their gated neighborhood to find out whether their home had survived.

“I don’t know about our house,” Mimi said.

She was wearing the black athletic pants she had on when she headed to the gym the morning that the fire broke out. She recounted how she discovered that the shops had no electricity and realized disaster loomed. When she got back to the house, Morris was packing up.

“I grabbed almost nothing,” he said.

“The laptop,” Mimi replied.

“And the daughter!” Mimi said, smiling.

At Malibu Colony Cove, some residents who managed to get past the checkpoint where sheriff’s deputies were turning back cars groused about the restrictions on their comings and goings.

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Angelina Radden’s mother had returned to her West Malibu home.

“She’s very persistent,” Radden said cryptically when asked how her mother had pulled that off.

They had spent days cleaning ash from the house. When Radden heard Friday that a nearby Ralphs was open, she jumped in the car to get groceries — only to learn that the deputies would not let her drive back in. She ended up making the trip on foot.

“You kind of feel like you’re under house arrest,” said Radden, who was hiking back south Sunday morning along Pacific Coast Highway, heading to an area past the Paradise Cove road closure to meet up with a friend who would ferry her back to her car.

“You can’t go anywhere or do anything.”

Another resident, who declined to give his name because he worried that deputies would roust him from his home, said he had remained there through the fire. The man, a former firefighter, said the only tools he had to defend his home were a wet towel and a five-gallon bucket.

He had driven down to Paradise Cove, where deputies were stopping vehicles, to get supplies from volunteers who walked them to residents waiting just past the road closure.

“No level of government has provided anything to people out here,” he said. “We’re trying to stay alive out here with no power and no gasoline to run generators. The food supplies are holding up — because of volunteers.”

Lynn Jacob strode past him, toting bags loaded with ice and other supplies back to her car. “The aftermath of this disaster is a disaster in itself,” she said.

Jacob, a longtime West Malibu resident who had returned to her home Sunday, said one of her elderly neighbors had gone to the grocery store without realizing she would be unable to return to her husband, Jacob said.

“She had to cry and cry. She went back three different times before she finally got through,” Jacob said.

Residents have ruefully started calling it the Yoyo fire, she said, for “you’re on your own.”

When Jeff and Nan Thompson and their son Alex, a ruddy-haired 5-year-old with boundless energy, returned to their hilltop home in Malibu, they were astonished by what had burned and what had not.

Burned: bushes scorched black along their driveway, a metal grate only steps from their living room windows, and a nearby house that used to loom over them from the hills.

Not burned: their butterscotch-colored house, which seemed practically untouched save for a scattering of Spanish tiles that had tumbled from the roof.

They already knew it had survived, thanks to neighbors and television footage, but it still amazed Nan Thompson to see just how close the flames had come. She stepped carefully over the broken tiles to photograph bits of damage: a charred patch of the sprinkler system, a garage window that had shattered.

Perhaps the strangest thing was their massive metal storage container, bigger than a dumpster, that had somehow been spun around and flung across the blackened land behind the house. The Thompsons feared it might tumble down the ravine, warning Alex not to get too close.

“Where’s the beehive that was under the container?” Alex asked as he zipped back and forth, a toy dog in his hand.

“It’s gone. All burned up,” Jeff Thompson replied.

Alex paused to take it in. “The bees’ home is burned,” he said.

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