The Woolsey Fire… A Chronology of Evacuation and Loss

📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo

📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo

Today is the one year anniversary of the day the Woolsey Fire tore through Malibu and changed the lives of so many forever.

Tragedy does that.

It alters lives and disrupts realities. It happens every minute, of every day, in every part of the world, in different ways.

Just yesterday, right here in Malibu, there was a fatal car accident on Pacific Coast Highway. A 17-year-old died, and the crash clean up and investigation shut down the highway in both directions for six hours. It was a huge inconvenience for some commuters; but a tragic, life altering event for the loved ones of the young girl who lost her life in a blink of an eye.

Loss happens, affecting some minimally, and others monumentally.

The Woolsey Fire brought loss to so many… a few lost their lives, some lost their homes and all their worldly possessions, others lost access to their unscathed homes for days or weeks, and still others lost a sense of safety and security they previously felt in the town in which they lived.

It has been a challenging year for my community, my family, and me; and one that not only changed my life circumstances, but also changed me.

Our home survived the fire, but we battled through tough challenges in the aftermath. The wildfire ignited injuries and suffering that I never could have anticipated… and we faced states of emergency and disaster zone conditions that were hard to endure from one day to the next.

It was a year of forced sacrifice and unexpected hardship. It was physically painful, mentally exhausting, and emotionally draining.

Still, it brought me here.

Alive. Grateful for life. Persevering. Cultivating resilience. Thriving.

At peace with the past. Content in the present. Optimistic about the future.

The photos I captured a year ago, in the hours leading up to and during our evacuation, tell the story of my individual experience of the Woolsey Fire better than any words could do.

It’s not the full story, and it’s not anywhere near the most tragic, but it is mine.

4:03pm - November 8, 2018 - Smoke from the Hill Fire in Ventura County making its presence known over the Pacific Ocean. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

4:03pm - November 8, 2018 - Smoke from the Hill Fire in Ventura County making its presence known over the Pacific Ocean. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

The Woolsey Fire started the day before it hit Malibu, on November 8th, but was far away from us when it began. On that Thursday, the Hill Fire in Ventura County was more of a threat to our home. We saw the smoke encroaching into our view and eclipsing the sun that afternoon as the hot Santa Ana winds blew the palm trees in front.

4:25pm - November 8, 2018 - the smell of smoke grew potent and ash began to fly through the air outside. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

4:25pm - November 8, 2018 - the smell of smoke grew potent and ash began to fly through the air outside. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Just like the Thomas Fire a couple years prior, the Hill Fire was a potential threat to us because our little pocket of homes at the edge of the expansive Santa Monica Mountains is located in the western most part of Malibu and under the jurisdiction of Ventura County.

So while most of the Malibu community went to sleep that night in their own beds, we were given a mandatory evacuation around 8:15pm because of the proximity of the Hill Fire in Ventura. We decided to stay over a friend’s house further south in Malibu, since our kids still had school the next day, and according to what was being reported, none of the Los Angeles County part of Malibu was in danger from fire yet… the Woolsey Fire was still many miles away.

With my car packed to the brim with birth certificates, passports, hard drives, photo albums and other irreplaceable possessions, we drove fifteen miles south on PCH to our dear friend’s house for an impromptu sleep over. It was way past the kids’ bedtime, but we finally got them to sleep in anticipation of waking them up for school the next morning.

I myself didn’t sleep very soundly that night. The wind was howling outside, knocking tree branches against the house and my concern for the safety of our home, and any other people or property in the line of fire, was weighing on my mind.

4:56am - November 9, 2018 - Mandatory Evacuation zones in red, excluding most of Malibu except for our mostly uninhabitEd Section up the coast.

4:56am - November 9, 2018 - Mandatory Evacuation zones in red, excluding most of Malibu except for our mostly uninhabitEd Section up the coast.

5:50am - November 9, 2018 - the Woolsey Fire was moving fast and it was time to evacuate Malibu.

5:50am - November 9, 2018 - the Woolsey Fire was moving fast and it was time to evacuate Malibu.

On the morning of Friday, November 9th, I was up by 5am, and the fire update was devastating. We were notified an hour later that school had been cancelled for the day and most of Malibu was now under a “precautionary” evacuation. The Woolsey Fire had moved into Calabasas overnight, crossing over the 101 freeway and heading into the mountains of Malibu.

It took a bit to get the kids up and out, as we were all glued to the fire coverage on the live TV broadcast. When we finally left our friend’s house, bound for my sister’s in South Pasadena, we saw an enormous cloud of smoke looming overhead, the size and density of which I had never seen before. The sight of it slowly beginning to eclipse the clean blue sky of the Malibu coast was scary and disconcerting; and we stood in disbelief on their driveway for a few minutes before piling in the car to leave.

8:13am - November 9, 2018 - woke up to this sight over Corral Canyon where we had stayed for the night (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:13am - November 9, 2018 - woke up to this sight over Corral Canyon where we had stayed for the night (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:25am- November 9, 2018 - Intersection of PCH and Corral Canyon as we started our journey evacuating MALIBU (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:25am- November 9, 2018 - Intersection of PCH and Corral Canyon as we started our journey evacuating MALIBU (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We drove down the canyon and reached PCH close to 8:30am, and I knew immediately we should have set out to leave sooner. The mass exodus had already begun, and it appeared that PCH was presumably backed up for miles.

8:42am - November 9, 2018 - we were amongst hundreds of cars lined up, frozen in gridlock while trying to go south on PCH (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:42am - November 9, 2018 - we were amongst hundreds of cars lined up, frozen in gridlock while trying to go south on PCH (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It was. We crawled up the hill toward Pepperdine University, in a state of gridlock that moved slower than any traffic jam of which I have ever been a part. I put the car in park and got out to take photos, since we didn’t move an inch for several minutes at a time, and I had to keep myself occupied somehow.

It was hard not to worry, and a sense of helplessness and desperation was growing inside me. The anxiety in my body was palpable, especially in my neck and shoulders, and I kept taking deep breaths to keep myself calm and focused. I just wanted to get my kids out of the area safely and as soon as humanly possible.

They, on the other hand, were blissfully content while immersed in the fantastical realm of Harry Potter, watching a movie together on the car entertainment system. The bluetooth headphones they were wearing blocked out their awareness of what was transpiring outside, and I had never been more grateful for technology than I was in that moment.

10:12am - November 9, 2018 - passing Pepperdine University (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:12am - November 9, 2018 - passing Pepperdine University (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It took us almost two hours to drive 2.5 miles. The kids started a second movie. From the top of the hill near Pepperdine University, the smoke plume looked much larger than it had at the bottom of the hill. This was when the gravity of the situation intensified for me, and I wondered if this would be the last time I’d see this place as it looked then.

10:30am - November 9, 2018 - PCH south of Malibu Canyon, heading south toward the Malibu Creek and Pier (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:30am - November 9, 2018 - PCH south of Malibu Canyon, heading south toward the Malibu Creek and Pier (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

The northbound side of Pacific Coast Highway was now closed, but they had yet to open it up to southbound traffic when we were passing through. All the canyons leading into Malibu were closed as well, so traveling southbound on PCH was the only way out of Malibu at that time. It was nerve-wracking to sit there and realize there was now only one exit route out of there available to us… unless we wanted to abandon our car and jump into the ocean and swim out.

10:52am - November 9, 2018 - gridlock on PCH and Webb Way (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:52am - November 9, 2018 - gridlock on PCH and Webb Way (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We could see that most of the cars sitting in traffic with us had only people and pets in them… few were as fully packed up as ours was, or even moderately packed. I presume the majority of the people in the cars around us hadn’t expected to be evacuated that morning, leaving their homes in a hurry with only the clothes on their backs or a few items they managed to grab. I counted us lucky in that moment for being evacuated the night before, giving us enough time to thoughtfully pack the car. I just wished I had decided to escape to my sister’s the night before instead of now being forced to sit in this purgatory of gridlock.

10:59am - November 9, 2018 - Approaching Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:59am - November 9, 2018 - Approaching Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We had been told it was only a “precautionary” evacuation that morning. In the news reports, it seemed that there was no expectation that this fire would ever reach all the way to the ocean. It just couldn’t. It was up in the mountains, miles and miles away still… surely they would stop it there? A fire that started so far away, traveling that far, that fast, was unlikely and improbable. Yet, coupled with the ferocious Santa Ana wind conditions, the unstoppable force of Woolsey stunned us all.

11:01am - November 9, 2018 - traffic light at Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

11:01am - November 9, 2018 - traffic light at Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

I kept looking back and snapping photos of the smoke, in utter disbelief of its size. I knew our home was underneath it somewhere, but since we had left it over fourteen hours prior, I had no idea how close the fire was to consuming it, or if it already had burned, at this point in time.

11:30am - November 9, 2018 - south of Duke’s Malibu Restaurant (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

11:30am - November 9, 2018 - south of Duke’s Malibu Restaurant (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It was now after 11am, and the smoke had finally drifted over the Pacific Ocean. The further I drove away, the larger it seemed to grow. It felt like we were trying to outrun an enemy invasion; and in a way, we were.

12:16pm - November 9, 2018 - The last photo I took of the smoke consuming Malibu from PCH in Santa Monica (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

12:16pm - November 9, 2018 - The last photo I took of the smoke consuming Malibu from PCH in Santa Monica (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

When we finally reached Santa Monica, we had been in the car for over four hours and traveled only fourteen miles.The kids began a third movie. I took a final photo of Point Dume across the ocean, with all of Malibu seemingly completely engulfed in smoke, before entering the McClure Tunnel and getting on the 10 freeway toward Downtown L.A.

The drive from that point was uneventful. It was just slowed down considerably by the usual L.A. Friday traffic nightmare and the added congestion from the influx of Malibu residents evacuating. Once we finally arrived at my sister’s house in South Pasadena just before 2pm, we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the news and searching for signs of hope that our home and our community wasn’t burning to the ground.

2:24pm - November 9, 2018 - a shot of the news on the Television at my sister’s house (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

2:24pm - November 9, 2018 - a shot of the news on the Television at my sister’s house (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Yet from what we could tell from the live news reports, it seemingly was burning to the ground. We saw footage of flames burning bushes on the beach side of PCH just north of Zuma Beach. The fire had, in fact, reached the ocean.

Fire trucks were racing north on PCH in the clips we saw on TV. Our home was less than ten miles north of this location on the screen, so things were looking pretty bleak. The sun was blocked out by the smoke, so it was dark, gray, brown and hazy, and the wind was still blowing hard.

We heard reports that the high school and the local supermarkets had burned. We imagined the worst in the absence of proof to the contrary. It was growing dark, the first responders couldn’t see, and the air drops weren’t feasible in the wind conditions. It all seemed impossible to control; and for a while, it was.

Waiting and wondering if we would have a home, or even a town, in which to return was excruciating. Neighbors texted us photos that night showing the mountain behind our home completely engulfed in flames. They had disregarded the mandatory evacuation and were there when all the open land around our neighborhood was ablaze.

November 9, 2018 - the mountains behind our neighborhood on fire (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the mountains behind our neighborhood on fire (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the fire creeping down the mountain toward our home (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the fire creeping down the mountain toward our home (📷: Sean Newhouse)

The firefighters arrival forced their overdue evacuation, but they still stopped across the street and shot photos in the dark of the fire ripping down the mountain toward our street. I was in shock and disbelief. We went to bed that night resigned to the possibility that we would probably wake up to the news that it was all gone… our home, our neighborhood, our city.

We truly thought it was all going to burn.

Thankfully, we found out the next afternoon, after the first wave of winds subsided, that our home did not burn the previous night. The firefighters saved our entire neighborhood of homes. We were extremely lucky. The school was still there, as well as the markets; but the fires and the winds were far from over, so any comfort in the fact our home survived was delayed for many more days. The winds picked back up again and the fire continued to burn out of control, and we knew it was far from over.

Of course, there was some relief our home was safe at that point; but our good news came simultaneously with word of what had happened to other parts of Malibu in our absence. After the first day of the fire, we discovered through social media reports that eight close friends/families lost their homes.

Over the course of the weekend, that number of families increased rapidly, climbing up every day as the news spread of homes burned in the local neighborhoods of Malibu Park, Malibu West, Point Dume, and Latigo Canyon. By Monday, we had confirmation that 30 families whom we knew personally lost everything they owned to the fire.

November 22, 2108 - Kanan Road Tunnels surrounded by black and burned mountains (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

November 22, 2108 - Kanan Road Tunnels surrounded by black and burned mountains (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

News of more losses came as time went by. The days, weeks, and months that followed were some of the hardest of my life.

We were evacuated from our home for one week. Ash covered everything, power and internet was out for weeks, a generator was eventually delivered to service our street, and everywhere we looked, the landscape was black. We lay in bed each night and heard a loud fuel truck pull up to fill the generator parked on the street with gas, and wondered when it would all stop.

I didn’t take many photos during those first few days home, mainly because we weren't really allowed to drive through PCH anyway. Downed power poles and debris kept many sections of the highway closed. Photographic images from others of fire damage around town were also not in short supply; and they were all so heartbreaking.

During those first few weeks, it was hard to fathom how well, and how long, we were going to live in that state of disaster.

LEO CARILLO STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS DEVASTATED BY THE WOOLSEY FIRE- MALIBU, CA (📷: SGT. JOHN REGAN, CA STATE PARKS, LIFEGUARD SUPERVISOR, ANGELES DISTRICt)

LEO CARILLO STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS DEVASTATED BY THE WOOLSEY FIRE- MALIBU, CA (📷: SGT. JOHN REGAN, CA STATE PARKS, LIFEGUARD SUPERVISOR, ANGELES DISTRICt)

LEO CARILLO STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS DEVASTATED BY THE WOOLSEY FIRE- MALIBU, CA (📷: SGT. JOHN REGAN, CA STATE PARKS, LIFEGUARD SUPERVISOR, ANGELES DISTRICT)

LEO CARILLO STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS DEVASTATED BY THE WOOLSEY FIRE- MALIBU, CA (📷: SGT. JOHN REGAN, CA STATE PARKS, LIFEGUARD SUPERVISOR, ANGELES DISTRICT)

Feruary 2019 - Leo Carillo State Beach - skeleton of a burned lifeguard tower still sitting on the shore (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Feruary 2019 - Leo Carillo State Beach - skeleton of a burned lifeguard tower still sitting on the shore (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

February 2019 - Black and Burned Trees on a hill in our neighborhood (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

February 2019 - Black and Burned Trees on a hill in our neighborhood (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Today, I am so grateful to be on the other side of it all, beginning a new chapter and forging a new path. This community is stronger for it, and life goes on for all who suffered loss in all its varying degrees.

We are indebted to all the people who supported us during that difficult time. Those who took us in, hosted us generously, offered us their service and assistance, called or texted to check in on us, and kept us in their prayers.

To all of you… thank you.