Op-Ed: My Malibu house made it through the fire. I nearly didn’t

Smoke billows behind a building and palm trees along the PCH in western Malibu, Calif. on Nov. 9.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

My phone has been blowing up — perhaps a poor choice of words in this context — dinging and donging with calls, texts, emails, direct messages.

How did you do it? Where can I get a fire pump? What’s the name of that chemical?

The number of those asking for my firefighting tips is nearly as long as the list of friends needing a place to live. In my Malibu Park neighborhood, hundreds of homes were destroyed. Mine is one of the few left standing.


On Nov. 9, my wife, Gardia, was up at 6 a.m. worried about the extreme Santa Ana winds in the forecast. Thirty minutes later, she got a call that that a fire was headed toward Malibu. To be safe, she woke up our 16-year-old son, Davis, and told him to pack. Still, the fire announcement wasn’t unusual: Fall is fire season in Malibu. We had a brush fire in the area a few months earlier, which firefighters quickly put down with the help of a retardant-dropping helicopter.

At 7:30 a.m. the evacuation order came by phone call, text and email. I got up, and smelling smoke, headed to the toolshed that served as my home office to get my laptop — the only possession I would take. The sky above me had turned black, though over the ocean it was still blue. My son and I grabbed garden hoses to water down the property. In an abundance of caution, I dragged the portable water pump out of the garage. An old time Malibuite and surfer buddy, Tim, once told me he’d used a pump and the water from his swimming pool to save his family home in the 1993 fire. So I got one, tested it every year, and acquired other gear too: masks, fire hoses, a specialized wrench to access the hydrant at the top of the street, and even a flame retardant chemical, Phos-Chek.

The only reason I didn’t catch on fire was because I was so low to the ground that the whirl of flames passed over me.

But I’d never used any of it.

I wheeled the pump down to our hot tub and attached the fire hose as Davis drenched the house before the residential water was shut off to be diverted to fire hydrants. I pulled the cord and the engine sputtered on. I increased the idle and prepared for the water pressure.

There was no pressure. The engine ran, but the pump didn’t pull water out of the spa. I shut it off and started it again. Still nothing.

The sky seemed to have lightened, as if the sun had come out after a rainstorm. On the ridge above us, there was an orange glow.


“Get the Phos-Chek,” Gardia yelled. “Take the hose up to the hydrant.” I grabbed the wrench and headed to the hydrant. But I didn’t know what to do.

“Unscrew the cap,” Gardia said, arriving seconds behind me. “Then attach the hose.” I followed her instructions but still had no idea how the thing turned on.

“Use the wrench now,” she said pointing at a bolt I’d missed. “Lefty loosey,” she added before I went too far the wrong direction. I yanked the wrench in the opposite direction, and immediately the hose filled with water.

“Where’d you learn that?” I asked.

“YouTube,” she said. “Last night.”

I wanted to hug her, but then we noticed the ridgeline. Fire was pouring over it.

“Come on, get the Phos-Chek,” she shouted.

Back in the garage I grabbed the giant blue jug that had been sitting untouched for years. I poured a bunch of the liquid into the canister attached to the fire hose. Gardia turned on the nozzle and blasted our house with foamy water while Davis and I kept wetting the grounds with garden hoses.

Then I noticed the fire was no longer on the ridgeline above us, but next to us. It hadn’t crept down the hillside, as in previous fires. It flew, accelerated by the super-heated Santa Ana winds.

“We gotta go,” Gardia said, dragging the heavy hose down the driveway behind her and dousing every last inch of the house. She dropped it and got in her car to head to Zuma Beach, three minutes away. As I threw my hose down, fire exploded onto the ground as though it was being thrown at us. Davis and I jumped into my car to follow until I realized I’d left the garden hose on. Stupid as it was, I jumped out of the car to turn it off.

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I was pelted with debris and embers. The force of the wind nearly knocked me over. I bent down to turn off the water and a firenado materialized in front of me. I could hear my son screaming inside the car. The only reason I didn’t catch on fire was because I was so low to the ground that the whirl of flames passed over me.

I half-crawled to the car and started to drive off when there was a cracking sound. I looked up to see a power pole coming down. It missed the car by a few feet. I carefully steered to avoid the wires dangling overhead.

I don’t remember the rest of the drive down our hill because I was in shock. I’d come close to being killed along with my son. For what? A house? I hadn’t packed a thing of my personal stuff, so it’s not like objects and possessions mattered much to me. It was more like I loved our home, as if it, too, was a part of our family and I wanted to give it a chance to survive. Still, when I left, I didn’t think it would, and I don’t know if what we did was worth the risk. Others certainly took bigger risks than we did.

I do know I’m glad to have a home to go back to, and a place we can squeeze in some of our neighbors who aren’t so lucky.

As for my firefighting tips, I don’t know if I should be sharing those. But if you really want to know, I’ll tell you.

Robert Kerbeck is a writer and the founder of the Malibu Writers Circle.

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