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From atop Point Dume, a former Marine with binoculars, a radio and American flag tracks fires

From atop Point Dume, a former Marine with binoculars, a radio and American flag tracks fires
Robert Spangle monitors the Woolsey fire from Point Dume. (Benjamin Oreskes / Los Angeles Times)

When the Woolsey fire raced into Malibu, it took down phone and power lines as well as cellular equipment, making communication all the more challenging during the crisis.

So Robert Spangle decided to help out with something decidedly low-tech.

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The 29-year-old Marine-turned-photographer climbed Point Dume with binoculars, a small notebook, some coffee and an American flag.

From the top of the iconic rock that marks the end of Santa Monica Bay, he watched for signs of fire.

By Sunday, he’d been on watch for two days. During the day, he looked for plumes of smoke; at night he monitored the glowing flames.

He then regularly radioed friends to report on the fires’ movements. Those friends then went to the scene to try to help out, clearing brush or digging trenches.

Sometimes he would venture down and join them. Then he would return to his perch.

Spangle with his low-tech tools.
Spangle with his low-tech tools. (Benjamin Oreskes / Los Angeles Times)

While seated atop Point Dume, he sketched a crude map of the roads and canyons he was looking at.

“It is the only way to get a good sense of what’s going on,” he said.

He’s seen Malibu fires before, but this was the worst one.

“It’s never gotten close to PCH. This time it jumped it,” he said. (In fact, there have been fires in the past that have made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, including the Old Topanga Fire in 1993).

Earlier Sunday, some friends brought their boat up from Marina del Rey with more food, radios and shovels for the crew.

Spangle and his friends spent much of their lives in Malibu, and he believes they were able to make a difference.

“There are enough people out here with cameras,” he said. “I have some helpful background and experience. I know this place.”

Sunday afternoon, he made another trip down from the Point Dume rock.

He was going to strategize with rest of the team about what the coming night might hold.

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Brad Delaney during his very long shift at the Arco station on Pacific Coast Highway.
Brad Delaney during his very long shift at the Arco station on Pacific Coast Highway. (Benjamin Oreskes / Los Angeles Times)

Spangle wasn’t the only Malibu resident pulled into extreme action by the blaze.

Down the coast Sunday, Brad Delaney stood out outside the Arco gas station on Pacific Coast Highway with a yellow bandanna around his neck and pajama bottoms under his brown shorts.

He had been holed up at the station since Friday and was in his 35th hour of overtime for Arco.

His car felt like a safer haven than the store because he could actually see if the blaze was close.

On Friday, spot fires surrounded the store, and the nearby Pavilions parking lot was a “carpet of embers. I can’t believe the grocery store didn’t go,” he said.

“It’s been really bad everywhere. All I’m thinking about is surviving.”

Authorities have not said how many homes were lost in Malibu, but scores of destroyed properties were visible from the main roads of the beachside town. In Zuma Canyon and in the neighborhood around Point Dume, there were at least two dozen more.

Malibu City Councilman Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner suffered serious injuries while trying to protect his home from the fire, according to his fellow councilman, Skylar Peak.

Peak said Wagner’s wife told him late Saturday night that the well-known surf shop owner was in intensive care at a hospital but is expected to survive.

Wagner’s house was destroyed, Peak said.

11:50 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that there had been fires in the past that have jumped PCH.

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