California fires: In Malibu, many residents vow the community will bounce back. But some wonder whether they can afford to rebuild

MALIBU, CA --NOVEMBER 13, 2018 --The charred Santa Monica Mountains rise behind homes in Malibu,CA,
A view of the charred Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu homes from aboard the yacht of entrepreneur Howard Leight, who helped ferry supplies to Paradise Cove.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Crowley stood outside his Malibu home and surveyed the land that surrounds his ranch. The fence behind him lay charred, the pepper trees lining his property singed by the devastating wildfire that has plagued Malibu for a week.

Although the rolling knolls around him sit blackened, he considers himself fortunate. His house, Sky Dog Ranch, was spared by the flames while the homes tucked into the hills above no longer light up the nighttime sky.

“It’s not going to be the same,” Crowley, 72, said. “The landscape of Malibu has changed.”

As California Highway Patrol officers reopened Malibu to residents Thursday and Friday, many were still coming to grips with the devastation and wondering how long it would take for the city to recover.


Viewed by many as the playground for millionaires, tourists and millennial hikers laid out in glossy magazines, the famous seaside community is also home to older residents on fixed incomes and lifers who inherited houses purchased years ago — in some cases, generations — back when Malibu was the more affordable alternative to Santa Monica.

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For some in that set, the damage will be too much to bounce back from.

“We’re both seniors,” Crowley said of his wife and himself. “If we lost our home, it’s not worth taking the time to rebuild. It’s easier for seniors to sell the lot and move on.”


A few people, he said, told him they will likely take their insurance money and “get out.”

“They said they couldn’t afford to stay here anymore,” Crowley said. “They’ll go buy a place near their kids, as much as they like it here. They just can’t afford it.”

The Woolsey fire tore through Malibu’s scenic hillsides and into the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains last week, charring beloved landmarks such as the Backbone Trail and leaving smoldering ash where Spanish broom once bloomed.

The blaze has chewed through 98,362 acres and claimed three lives in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since it broke out. More than 500 structures have been destroyed. It is 69% contained.

Among the Malibu landmarks damaged by the flames were three beloved Jewish camps where generations of Southern Californians have spent their summers.

Camp Hess Kramer and its sister camp, Gindling Hilltop Camp, suffered “extremely extensive” blows, said Seth Toybes, the camps’ director.

Among the remains at Hess Kramer are the dining hall and the conference center. At Hilltop, the arts and crafts building is still standing along with a group of brick cabins.


“We’ve been telling people basically 90% of the camps are gone and it’s not a lot of the usable places that remain,” Toybes said.

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Toybes hasn’t been able to see the wreckage for himself, relying instead on photos from people who have been able to get through the roadblocks.

The menorah and wooden plaque still standing atop Rabbi Alfred Wolf Inspiration Point serve as a literal and figurative sign that the camp will be rebuilt, and that its spirit of empowerment for young people will live on, camp leaders said.

“When the tide settles, we’re going to go pick up the remnants,” said Aaron Wolf, grandson of Rabbi Wolf, who founded the camps.

Wolf said he plans on saving whatever pieces he can and placing them on the new walls they build. His grandfather built the camps after surviving Nazi Germany, he said, intent on creating a space not only for the Jewish community, but for everyone.

“The camps represent to the Jewish community in Los Angeles a progression after the Holocaust. It’s about being free and being able to be who you are,” he said. “Leaders like my grandfather have always found a way to bring hope in the wake of tragedy.”

Nearly half the homes in the Seminole Springs mobile home park off Mulholland Highway have been reduced to a gnarled mess of cinders, metal and rubble.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In rebuilding, the camps will stand for that hope, Wolf said.

Camp JCA Shalom also plans on continuing its programs, said Rabbi Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute.

“We still have to assess,” he said. “Our goal is to rebuild in some way.”

Photos of the damage show its famed sign — shalom in Hebrew — felled by the blaze. Gone too are the amphitheater built by teen campers, the dining hall and the ropes course.

“There’s not a lot left,” Kaplan said. “I think Malibu will be different for years. But people will rebuild, and smarter.”

Some residents in the neighboring mountain communities don’t know whether they will be able to do the same. Nearly half the homes in the Seminole Springs mobile home park off Mulholland Highway have been reduced to a gnarled mess of cinders, metal and rubble.

“I’ve lost everything. My cat’s dead. My house is melted to the ground,” said Iris Coyne, a resident who has lived in the community for 21 years. “I don’t know what my plan is.”

Coyne’s home was paid off. The 66-year-old said she is underinsured and on a tight budget because she is living off Social Security.

“It’s $40,000 just to move a new mobile home,” she said, waiting for a roadblock to be moved so she could go see the damage for herself. “I think recovering is going to take a lot longer than most of us anticipate.”

At a makeshift resource center in the parking lot of Point Dume Elementary School on Thursday evening, residents mingled, snacked on donated pastries and grabbed food for their pets. A sign pinned to the fence behind them read, “Malibu Strong.”

A wooden menorah and plaque honoring Camp Hess Kramer founder Rabbi Alfred Wolf are still standing after the Woolsey fire swept through Malibu.
(Ben Poston / Los Angeles TImes)

Richard Dean Anderson sat in the trunk of his hatchback with his two dogs, drinking coffee and reliving the battle he faced the week before. The “MacGyver” actor, who didn’t evacuate his Point Dume home, recalled the howling winds and the sensation of being caught in gusts so strong it felt as though he were caught in the middle of a whirlpool.

“There’s a stark reality that comes with it,” he said of the damage in the neighborhood. “If it’s not you, it’s friends you love who have lost everything.”

Eddie Erickson said he was still processing the level of destruction in the city.

“I don’t think it’s really even hit me yet,” the Malibu native said. “Point Dume’s never really been hit before, not like it’s been hit today. I haven’t come to grips with it yet.”

Last week, Erickson watched as the flames plowed through his street and up to the home his parents left him. He saved his house and a few others in the area with “shovels, hoses and prayer.”

“We took a beating,” he said.

Erickson expects recovery will be a long road. But Point Dume is a tight community, he said — its residents will band together to restore the neighborhood, the same way they united to gather food, water and gasoline when the roads in and out were closed.

“Some of my friends lost their homes,” he said. “All I could say to them was, ‘I’ll help you rebuild.’”

Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.

For more California news follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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