Woolsey fire likely worst ever to hit Malibu, with home losses topping $1.6 billion

By Matt Stiles and Jon Schleuss

Destructive wildfires are regular events in Malibu, but last month’s Woolsey fire could prove to be the worst ever to strike the upscale coastal community.

At least 670 structures were destroyed inside the Malibu city limits, including more than 400 single-family homes with an estimated market value of at least $1.6 billion, according to an analysis of aerial imagery and property records conducted by The Times and Zillow, the real estate website.

“There’s so much destruction,” said Chris Cortazzo, a Malibu real estate agent, who lost his home on Mulholland Highway, just outside the city. “Everyone’s a little shell-shocked.”

Los Angeles County emergency officials and state fire investigators haven’t released an official damage assessment of structures in Malibu. The Times identified destroyed buildings using property data and post-fire aerial footage released by Vexcel Imaging, a company that mounts cameras to fixed-wing airplanes and flies over areas after natural disasters.

The damage documented by The Times is just a portion of the almost 97,000 acres burned by the Woolsey fire, which destroyed a total of 1,500 structures in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and killed three people, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

That makes the Woolsey fire one of the most destructive wildfires in state history, and the number of homes lost in Malibu is expected to surpass the totals recorded in devastating blazes there in 1993, 1982, 1978 and 1970, among others.

It gutted mansions and horse ranches alike, leaving large swaths of Malibu terrain resembling a lunar landscape. The median market value of the homes destroyed was about $3.47 million, said Matt Kreamer, the data public relations manager at Zillow.

In a first for a wildfire since 1935, the flames crossed Pacific Coast Highway into Point Dume, destroying numerous homes along Wandermere Road and Dume Drive, according to a review of historic fire perimeter data.

The worst destruction occurred in the city’s western neighborhoods, with areas such as Malibu Park, near Zuma Beach, losing scores of homes, including one designed by Frank Gehry and once owned by actor Patrick Dempsey.

“It was a firestorm that came through pretty quick,” said Ed Bell, a Malibu resident helping workers clear the debris from his brother’s destroyed home on Harvester Road, where four horses were lost. “When he got here, there wasn’t anything he could do. It was completely engulfed. He couldn’t even get into the driveway.”

Bell, a Malibu resident since the mid-1980s, said he knew dozens of others who lost their homes. Many, he said, weren’t mentally prepared to return.

“It’s going to be real tough for people,” he said. “Hopefully, they can find the strength in their neighbors and their kinfolk. Together they can rebuild. This is a real big thing to overcome if they’re by themselves.”

Drone footage shows the rubble and burned-out shells of homes along Harvester Road in Malibu. (Travis Geske / For The Times)

The Malibu flames burned structures of all sizes, ranging from 400 to 13,000 square feet, according to county property records. Among the most valuable homes destroyed was an oceanfront villa near El Matador State Beach. It had been on the market for $25 million.

A mansion nearby that sold for $12 million in 2007 was also destroyed.

Malibu resident Kevin Cohen and his father, Andy, noticed the flames move into Encinal Canyon around 11 a.m. on Nov. 9, a snaking orange line raging through the mountain scrub in their direction.

Andy Cohen, right, and his son Kevin Cohen walk the charred grounds of their home, which was saved after they flagged down firefighters, who attacked the flames spreading through the canyon behind their house. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Within an hour, the sky had gone black — and the flames and smoke seemed destined to consume the family’s scenic vista along Pacific Coast Highway.

“Everything is on fire,” Kevin Cohen, 23, recalled recently. “We can’t call anybody. We can’t call a fire truck. We can’t call a policeman. We’re up here, just alone, with a water hose trying to spray things off.”

Desperate, the men scrambled down their steep, winding driveway toward El Matador beach, eventually flagging down an engine from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The team, from a station 50 miles away in El Monte, trucked into the flames, saving the Cohens’ stucco villa after a two-hour battle.

“If they weren’t here,” Andy Cohen said, “the house would be gone.”

As residents such as the Cohens return, the fire tops the chatter at coffee shops and small markets around the community. Rumors about the damage and recovery swirl, especially on social media, as do questions surrounding the authorities’ response to the fast-moving blaze.

“It’s the first thing you ask: ‘How are you, how was your house?’ ” said longtime City Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal, who recently learned that the home where she raised her now-grown sons on Calpine Drive was lost in the fire. “There are a lot of hugs, a lot of concern, a lot of venting. People are in shock, still.”

As the community takes time to assess the damage, and an army of utility workers and heavy-construction laborers restore services and clear debris, residents are also quick to note that much of the community has been spared the worst devastation.

The neighborhood of Malibu Park, near Zuma Beach in western Malibu, saw some of the worst destruction in the fire. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Large sections of eastern Malibu, including places where numerous historic fires caused destruction, didn’t burn this time.

The area’s three elementary schools, for example, survived — as did Malibu High School. The latter remains closed while district officials ensure its air quality is safe for returning students, Rosenthal said.

The Cohens returned to their 4,000-square-foot home, and its view of the Pacific Ocean, just in time for Thanksgiving. The vast canyon behind is scarred and black.

A vintage fire engine the Cohens had on their land was damaged in the fire. (Matt Stiles / Los Angeles Times)

Fire crews couldn’t save a vintage 1941 Seagrave fire engine that the Cohens had on their land. It was lost as the fire moved past their house, charring the hill down to the highway and acres of land along the beach.

But their home still stands.

“It’s crazy, right?” Andy Cohen said, thumbing through harrowing photos he took to document the flames inside the canyon that destroyed two houses on either side of his lot. “Everything around here was on fire.”

Credits: Nextzen, OpenStreetMap, Geospatial Imaging Center/Vexcel Imaging