A Journey from Ruin to Resilience: The Malibu Community Reflects on Woolsey

A childhood stuffed animal. A Bible. A late parent’s watch. A home. A friend. Everything.

On Nov. 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire led to unparalleled loss and forever changed Malibu — both the people and the land.

“There’s definitely beauty in the ashes,” said Laurie Kazmer, the first Malibu resident to move back into her rebuilt home 14 months after losing it in Woolsey. “It definitely was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me, and I see where there has been good.”

Over two years after the flames burned nearly 100,000 acres and 1,500 structures, evacuated 3,000 people and killed three, community members reflected on the loss and the life, the ruin and the resilience, and everything in between. Nature has led the way toward recovery, but people are still stumbling behind.

Evelin Weber, executive director of the Malibu Foundation, aims to create a climate-resilient community and help individuals affected by Woolsey. She said it is crucial to help one’s neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable. Photo courtesy of ReJeana Goldsborough | Malibu Foundation

The ruin

Before she could return to see what was left of her life, Kazmer had to wait nearly two months for the fire department to declare her property safe from any hazards. She could bear losing her own belongings, but the hardest part was losing her four children’s memorabilia.

“I had their baby pictures, a box of all the things they did over their childhood, the Christmas ornaments — everything that a mom would collect,” Kazmer said. “I can’t get that back for them — I feel terrible. It’s just stuff, and we can’t take it with us, but it’s your stuff. It makes up who you are.”

Kazmer said she will always regret not staying to protect her home from the fire.

A lifelong resident of Malibu, Council Member Mikke Pierson said he felt prepared to fight Woolsey with his son and several neighbors in an effort to save as many homes as possible. He will never forget the fire.

“It was big, it was scary, it was fast, it was loud,” Pierson said.

Brian Rooney, whose Cornell neighborhood had always been spared from wildfires during his 20 years of living there, said his apartment — along with around 200 of his neighbors’ homes — were all completely destroyed.

“The fact that I’ve been deeply affected by a fire is not terribly surprising,” Rooney said. “It’s sad, it’s unfortunate, it’s painful, but it’s not surprising.”

Rooney was able to save his camera equipment, 700 vinyls and CDs and his historical files now displayed in Pepperdine’s Special Collections. His apartment, however, remains an empty lot.

Keith and Debbie Larson, Malibu Lakeside Community Association officers, own one of the only homes on their street that survived Woolsey, and over two years after the fire, they said nothing has changed. None of their neighbors have rebuilt their homes yet. In fact, only a few have started.

Woolsey broke up the formerly close-knit community, with many of their neighbors leaving Malibu permanently. The Larsons said the past two years have been mentally and emotionally difficult.

“Driving through devastation — especially when you have invested so much of your life in the neighborhood trying to make it better and then just seeing it destroyed — is really hard,” Keith Larson said. “To have dozens of your closest friends lose everything they have is really hard, and it just takes a long time to deal with.”

Although they are grateful their house survived, the Larsons said guilt usually overpowers the gratefulness.

The morning after the Borderline shooting, then junior Jalen Frantal (2020) and his cross country teammates boarded a bus to Sacramento for a race. During that bus ride, Frantal learned that Alaina Housley was killed. Once in Sacramento, he learned that the Woolsey Fire had burned down his Calamigos Ranch house.

“It wasn’t even on our minds because we were too busy focusing on the shooting,” Frantal said.

Nothing in Frantal’s house was recognizable except the fireplace. His former home is now a parking lot.

Photo courtesy of Jalen Frantal
Alumnus Jalen Frantal (2020)’s car is destroyed along with his Camaligos Ranch house following the Woolsey Fire. He said losing his physical belongings reminded him of the importance of relationships.  Photos courtesy of Jalen Frantal

With class and swim and dive practice cancelled due to the fires, alumna Taylor Basin (2019) and her older sister wondered how to spend their extra free time. But later, as the fire drew closer, they were told to evacuate. A year earlier, when they also had to evacuate, they overpacked only to return to their apartment the next day as normal. This time, they packed only a couple items of clothing.

Later, while watching the news, Basin saw that her Malibu Gardens apartment had burned, and absolutely nothing was left. She only had two pairs of leggings and one set of pajamas.

Basin said the biggest challenges were not having a sense of belonging and maintaining her grades after her laptop was lost in the fire. Although the whole Pepperdine community was processing the experience together, she felt as though no one could relate to her loss.

“Keeping up with school while also trying to rebuild a life would be the hardest part I think because everyone went through it, but there was only one other person who actually lost their apartment,” Basin said.

Screen Arts Professor Germano Saracco woke to the sound of his neighbor banging on his door warning him to evacuate, and that night, when the smoke was twice as big as the Malibu hills, he learned his home had burned down. He moved into a neighbor’s studio on the same street because he initially thought he would be able to save some of his belongings, but that was not the case. His house has not yet been rebuilt.

“Nothing — not a single nail was actually really saved,” said Saracco, who lost $450,000 worth of camera equipment and a private collection of film, along with everything else in his apartment.

The rebuilding

Only 26 of the 488 Malibu homes destroyed in Woolsey have been completely rebuilt as of March 31, according to the city’s Woolsey Fire Rebuild Statistics. Pierson said he acknowledges how difficult it is to build a home unexpectedly, and Christine Shen, Malibu’s environmental sustainability analyst, said helping victims rebuild is the city’s top priority.

Rooney, Kazmer and the Larsons said Malibu officials have been better advocates than LA County officials, and the biggest challenge for fire victims to overcome has been the county’s failure to expedite building permits.

“When you put the stress of losing everything in a fire and all that on top of the stress of getting a building permit, it’s just made a terrible situation for my neighbors,” Rooney said. “It’s really unnecessary what they make people go through, and it would have been nice if LA County had followed through with their promise.”

Bureaucratic agencies did not seem to recognize victims’ suffering, Saracco said.

“They treat you like a number,” Saracco said. “The loss has been taken. There were things that were really irreplaceable in the end.”

After witnessing her neighbors’ immense loss, Malibu resident Evelin Weber created the Malibu Foundation — a nonprofit organization aiming to create a climate-resilient community and help individuals affected by Woolsey.

“We can’t just be the people who helped everybody else and then not help our neighbors,” Webster said. “Literally while the fires were burning, we set up a foundation immediately. We felt like we had to — if it wasn’t us, then who?”

Immediately after the loss of her apartment, Basin said she was shocked to realize how many things she needed that she once took for granted — everything from a hair brush to furniture was gone. Her swim and dive teammates and coach gave her essentials and gear, Malibu had a drive for clothing donations, a GoFundMe page raised donations for her, and her friends at Malibu Fitness let her and her sister stay in their guest house.

“The initial thought I had seeing my apartment on TV was ‘I have nothing now,’ and then you come back and you have all these people who come together for you,” Basin said. “The beauty of it all was just the actual Malibu community coming together and helping each other.”

Even though the experience was difficult, regardless of whether one’s home was lost, many victims agreed Woolsey made the Malibu community even stronger. Individuals who lost everything were still willing to help neighbors. Kazmer, for example, said she is grateful for the kindness of strangers, who sent her donations and brought her food.

“It has taught me to open my eyes to the world and that when disaster happens, you can just do one small thing and maybe change somebody’s life,” Kazmer said.

The reflection

While Woolsey victims are struggling to physically rebuild, they are also struggling to emotionally rebuild, and although that process looks different for everyone, it can often be just as difficult. Pierson said he has seen his community experience intense emotions, from shock to trauma to outrage to sadness to gratefulness, after every fire in Malibu. This fire was different, though.

“The impact of this one is big; this is the biggest fire in Malibu’s history,” Pierson said. “There’s still a lot of people rebuilding — a lot of scars.”

Weber and Shen both said they see many victims struggling with their mental health, unable to recover. They are aware Malibu will never be the same and strive to consider the invisible impact of Woolsey on their community.

“I’m not a fire victim, but I’m sure that there’s a lot of trauma having to evacuate and not knowing that when you come back your house will be standing,” Shen said. “I think that is a long-term impact that our residents had to deal with.”

Rooney said despite mentally preparing himself for the possibility of a fire for decades, he has experienced post-traumatic stress since Woolsey’s flames tore through his neighborhood, and the smell of smoke from nearby fires often triggers him.

“And then the air was thick with smoke again, and it was a very strong smell, and I started yelling at no one,” Rooney said. “That was an interesting experience because I am normally a pretty calm person.”

The destruction from the fire also changed victims’ priorities. Basin said she learned that unlike material objects, people cannot be replaced, and now she focuses on making sure those close to her know how much she loves them.

“What matters most is the people,” said Basin, who found strength in her sister. “It really did just show me the importance of the people you have in your life and to just never take it for granted. I’m just so lucky it was just things that were lost and not people.”

Similarly, Frantal said his experience enabled him to realize what is most important in life, prompting him to invest in his friendships and spend more time outdoors.

“Losing my house and everything that I owned is a wake-up call that you can find a great career, earn a lot of money, have a nice house and a bunch of material possessions, but something can take that away in an instant,” Frantal said. “Relationships just really became so much more important because I realized that that’s what matters.”

During this time, Frantal said he relied on his friends, who helped him feel less alone, and his professors, who gave him grace. One professor even encouraged him to journal about his experience, and sitting on the floor of what was left of his unrecognizable house allowed him to process.

Because he had always been the one to help those in need, Saracco said relying on others was difficult, but the fire taught him how to accept help without feeling ashamed.

“I like to think that it’s made me a better person,” Saracco said.

For Kazmer, the most significant outcome from Woolsey is how it changed her faith.

“I went from thinking that I’m in control to realizing that I have absolutely no control of my life and that God is in complete control,” Kazmer said. “God has perfect timing, and everything worked out for me.”

The resilience

Despite their differing definitions of resilience, many Woolsey victims have embraced the idea of learning from their loss and finding purpose in their pain. Many, like Frantal, believe resilience involves allowing adversity to make one a better person.

“Being resilient is one of the most important qualities you can have because life is going to be rough sometimes,” Frantal said.

The collective hardship made community members more willing to help each other, Weber said.

“There is a bond amongst Woolsey fire victims, and people became stronger together, but more work still needs to be done because recovery is one thing and resilience is another,” said Weber, who stressed the importance of caring for the most vulnerable.

The journey to resilience has been difficult, but Pierson said he has been moved by the ways in which residents supported one another.

“The Malibu community draws its strength from knowing how blessed we are to be in Malibu,” Pierson said. “We as humans tend to move forward — sometimes remembering, sometimes forgetting.”

Pierson, who knew two of the three people who died during the fire, said he encourages individuals not to become complacent when it comes to planning for emergencies.

“Never forget, and be prepared,” Pierson said.

Saracco said he will never forget the comfort he found in knowing he was not alone: He had others, and he had God. Despite the devastation, he knew he would survive the struggle regardless of whether his home did.

“Oh my God, I had help; I am a man of faith,” said Saracco, who made sure to save two things before he fled the fire: a figurine of Jesus and a painting of the archangel Michael. “Somehow, I always knew I would be OK.”

Photo courtesy of Germano Saracco
When evacuating, Screen Arts Professor Germano Saracco made sure to save two things: a figurine of Jesus and a painting of the archangel Michael. Saracco said he found strength in his faith, knowing that he would survive the tragedy even though his home did not. Photo courtesy of Germano Saracco 

Although she would not want to relive her experience, Kazmer said she is not bitter because she knows she has the strength to rebuild. She has a powerful message for anyone impacted by tragedy.

“You can get through it and you can rebuild and your life can go on again,” Kazmer said.

The regrowth

Those who witnessed the wreckage of Woolsey saw the land transform from ruin to regrowth. By finding beauty through the ashes, they gained hope that recovery was possible.

Frantal noted the parallel between the resilience of the environment and the Malibu community following the fire.

“No matter what, nature is going to rebuild,” Frantal said. “The people who were able to take this and be intentionally resilient were also growing at the same rate. …As the land is recovering, it is the physical representation of the people who are also recovering.”

Knowing that fire is a natural, withstandable occurrence was a source of comfort for Rooney.

“There’s an understanding that fire is a way of life up in these mountains, and it’s just kind of something that’s going to happen,” Rooney said. “I may have been feeling a little bit safer, a little bit more protected, but Mother Nature did not help us this time.”

Seeing and hearing the pain of his community, Pierson said the fire taught him the importance of considering the ways in which residents and the environment impact each other.

“I absolutely think that people recover slower,” Pierson said. “The land understands fire and deals with it — Malibu citizens, not so much. A lot of people were shocked to their core that a fire like this could happen. To me it wasn’t if, it was when.”

Like many Malibu residents, Pierson said he will forever be inspired by the resilient nature of the land.

“Woolsey came through and everything was gone — to an extent I had never seen; it did not look like anything would survive,” Pierson said. “Everything is fine except the one thing that doesn’t come back — that’s the houses. They don’t regrow themselves. They are not resilient.”

After living in her rebuilt home for over a year, Kazmer said she has found strength in knowing she has not only survived but thrived after losing everything.

“The healing of the land has to happen first,” Kazmer said. “People have to get back to what they had before they can start healing themselves.”

Nature leads the way

Malibu’s native plants are inherently resilient.

Biodiverse and adapted to fire, some plants actually need fire to grow, as the heat cracks the seed’s coating and allows it to germinate. Other plants’ roots survive the fire and hold the land together to prevent mudslides. Biology Professor Helen Holmlund said she finds hope in this seemingly choreographed series of fire followers.

“Beauty through ashes is a great way to describe the Santa Monica Mountains after a fire because for the first few months all you see is moonscape,” Holmlund said. “It looks like life is gone, and it’s not gone at all — it’s just getting ready to come back in a new way.”

Woolsey was the largest wildfire in Malibu — almost 2.5 times bigger in size than the 1993 Green Meadow Fire, said Marti Witter, fire ecologist for the National Park Service. Witter said Woolsey drew attention to increased fire frequency and severity and, like most wildfires, could have been prevented.

Members of the Malibu community and the Malibu Foundation help restore the hillsides following the Woolsey Fire. Malibu is home to some of the world’s most fire-adapted plants, and after seven to 10 years, native plants can fully recover. Photos courtesy of ReJeana Goldsborough | Malibu Foundation

Most fires start from human factors, such as arcing power lines, and then spread due to natural forces, such as the Santa Ana winds, Witter said. Climate change, however, has resulted in longer and more severe droughts. Although Malibu is home to some of the most dehydration-tolerant plants in the world, they can still fuel fires.

For Christine Shen, Malibu’s environmental sustainability analyst, making Malibu environmentally sustainable involves combatting the impacts of climate change, including the increase in wildfires. To prevent a repeat of Woolsey, the City of Malibu conducts Home Ignition Zone Assessments and enforces the Fire-Resistant Landscaping Ordinance, while also raising awareness about the intersection between natural hazard risk and climate change.

“The climate disasters are here, and there are ways that we can help mitigate that,” Shen said.

When protecting one’s home, Witter said residents should be aware that embers are often more dangerous than flames, and the vegetation within 100 feet of the home is most important to clear.

“My hope is that people are really recognizing what needs to be done to effectively prevent wildfire and also just to make homes more resistant to burning down,” Witter said.

Ultimately, Holmlund and Witter agreed that nature is generally more resilient than humans: seedlings can recover within three months of a fire, and after seven years, the chaparral’s plants are mature. Wildfires often have a more devastating impact on people than plants.

“When people are living in this kind of landscape, there can never be a truly 100% happy story because the devastation has just been so, so bad for communities,” Witter said. “It’s a long, hard road to recovery for the people whose homes burned.”

Witter also said she was amazed at the quick recovery of the plants after Woolsey, which she credits to the heavy rainfall in the spring.

“The post-fire environment really was amazing,” Witter said. “There is just a whole range of greens and yellows, and you have to learn to love it, but it’s quite beautiful.”

Malibu’s animals also embody resilience. Some local animals perished or relocated during Woolsey, but others withstood the heat, with new and even endangered species inhabiting the land following the fire. Witter said the animal response depends entirely on the plant response.

“We were really surprised that after the fire, even in unburned areas and burned areas, we saw more diversity of plants than we’ve seen in any other time ever,” Witter said. “It really was just magical.”

Despite plants’ ability to survive natural disasters, Holmlund said residents need to be more mindful of how their actions can alter Malibu’s landscape. When the fire return interval is shorter than the amount of time it takes for plants to fully recover, their ability to do so breaks down, and some plants on Pepperdine’s campus are now at risk of extinction.

“Nature is beautiful and resilient, but humans still have an impact on it,” Holmlund said.