Rita Cossette was in Nashville last week when she got word that her home of 33 years had been ravaged by fire. A friend called to say she had checked on her residence at Point Dume, and there was nothing left except a Buddha statue and a stone figurine. The friend retrieved the Buddha and seat-belted it into her car, for safekeeping.
When she received the devastating news, Cossette, who has worked for years as a stage manager on award shows like the Oscars and the Emmys, was working on the Country Music Awards show. Rather than fly home, she decided to stay put and go on with the event.
“It’s hard being away. You try to close your mind off and focus on work,” she says. “My mind is so clouded, but we did get the show off without a hitch.”
The Woolsey fire, which has destroyed 1,500 structures and claimed three lives, has been documented on celebrities’ Instagram stories and Twitter feeds. Some stars, including Liam Hemsworth and Robin Thicke, lost their homes. But Malibu is more than a celebrity enclave. It is also home to a lot of middle-class people, including those who work in Hollywood’s below-the-line trades. In the face of the disaster, they came together to protect each other’s homes and to share food, fuel and information.
A week after the fire jumped the 101 freeway and raced into the canyons toward the sea, the community was still largely cut off from the outside world. Working side by side, neighbors began the long process of recovery.
David Hays lives just west of Zuma Beach at the bottom of Trancas Canyon, which is home to Malibu West, a community of 177 tract homes and 60 condominiums. When the fire broke out on Nov. 8, he was one of seven people who stayed behind to fight the flames. About 20 homes burned. “The fire was moving so fast — it was the best we could do,” says Hays, who works at a post-production facility in Santa Monica. “If I hadn’t been here, my house wouldn’t be here,” he tells a Variety reporter on the scene.
In the aftermath, Hays was working with a group at the Malibu West Beach Club, which had become a place of refuge for homeowners who stayed behind. Pallets
of bottled water and toilet paper were stacked up on the front steps. “There’s no Red Cross out here,” Hays says. “There’s nothing. The neighborhood and the community have gotten together.”
Malibu remained closed last week, with Sheriff’s checkpoints along PCH. Many residents did not want to risk leaving their homes and not be allowed back. But stores remained closed, and the power was out, and many were running low on essentials.
The clubhouse has a generator, so residents gathered there to cook meals and take showers. Some spent the night at the clubhouse rather than go home, and some came by to fill their cars from gas canisters.
“We have been cooking dinners from scratch for 40 to 50 people,” says Lynda Riley, who was among the organizers.
Restaurant Nobu Malibu also got into the community spirit, hosting two dinners for firefighters and other first responders last week. On Nov. 11, executive chef Gregorio Stephenson got word that he would be escorted into Malibu for the occasion. “We made a run to Vons at Sunset and PCH, and we bought $1,200 to $1,300 worth of groceries,” he says. “It was very last-minute.”
He and a handful of volunteers also emptied the refrigerators at Nobu, serving prime rib, black cod and rock shrimp for 150 people. The parking lot was full of fire trucks and emergency vehicles. “They came in here covered in soot,” he says, adding that one group left a sizable tip. Two nights later, they brought in sushi from Nobu Los Angeles and served another 100 people, and made an additional 150 to-go bags.
Stephenson lives in an apartment on Point Dume, and has not been able to return home since the fire. “It’s very apocalyptic,” he says. “It’s surreal.”
Marcus Shirock, an actor whose credits include “Hercules Reborn” and “Android Cop,” lives in a backhouse on Point Dume. The night of the fire, embers landed in the yard, and he put out the flames with a garden hose. “There were tornadoes of wind along the beach,” Shirock says. “The wind picked up embers, and they fell a mile away.”
Several nearby homes burned to the ground, as Point Dume was among the areas hardest hit by the fire.
At Paradise Cove, Dick Haverick was standing on the end of a creaky pier, watching boats shuttle back and forth to the beach, delivering supplies. He comes out here several times a day to make calls. Since the fire, he can’t get a signal anywhere else.
“I call it ‘the phone booth,’” says Haverick, 75, a retired Hollywood tradesman who worked for decades as an engineer on ABC shows like “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and “General Hospital.” He bought his trailer at Paradise Cove 30 years ago for $80,000. Now it’s worth more than $1 million.
When the fire swept through, he put together a series of garden hoses and ran around putting out spot fires. He fell a few times, scrambling over uneven ground. The fire came within yards of his trailer; he scrolled through photos showing firefighters battling the blaze from his roof. “This is a small community,” he says. “Everybody wants to be here. And they watch each other. There are no secrets. But as my wife says, ‘We might talk about you, but if you’re in trouble, we’ll bring you what you need.’”
Jerri Churchill, a stage manager on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” lives in Corral Canyon, which burned a decade ago. Her home was spared at that time, though houses on either side were destroyed. After that, the community bought its own fire engine, not wanting to rely on the fire department. When the time came to use it, she says the engine was commandeered. Her neighbors were left to fight the fire with shovels and dirt. “Thank God people stayed behind,” she says. “My neighbor Steve Woods saved my home with a garden hose.”
Since the Woolsey Fire broke out, Churchill has been working with her husband as a volunteer for the Sheriff’s Department. When Malibu City Councilman Jefferson Wagner, aka “Zuma Jay,” a longtime stuntman, was injured in an unsuccessful attempt to save his home, she was among those who helped escort him out.
Churchill is plugged into the community from years of raising children there and attending kids’ birthday parties. She has been checking on people’s homes, and keeping a running tally on her Facebook page of the destruction. She’s the friend who had to tell Rita Cossette that her home had burned to the ground.
“I’ve delivered some very bad news this week,” she says.
Churchill takes photographs and videos for people who are still unable to return. Even the “good” news is not that good, she says. The homes that were not destroyed have been inundated with smoke. “This notion of ‘Well, everything’s OK’ — no, everything is not OK,” she says. “Every single person is going to have to replace every mattress, every pillow.”
Churchill says she understands that people are eager to return but warns her neighbors that it’s not safe yet. “These power lines are down across roadways. There are trees across roadways. The crews are working around the clock,” she says. “Once you have a big influx of people, it’s going to slow the recovery process down.” In all her conversations, Churchill says everyone seems committed to rebuilding. “There’s no talk of leaving,” she says. “This is our home.”
Malibu may be best known for its many star residents, but the community is tight-knit enough that fame doesn’t really matter, says Churchill. It’s like surfing — everyone is swimming in the same water.
“There’s no distinction there,” she says. “Everybody is very much in this together.”