The couple looked around their home off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, and saw the billowing clouds of smoke to the north. In a few seconds, they decided what to take on their way out the door. Downey, the producer and actor, grabbed her late father’s Bible and rosary. Burnett, producer and chairman of MGM Television, made a dash for some letters from his late mother.
Downey’s overriding concern was herding the family’s 200-pound Irish wolfhounds — Archie and Ruby — into her largest car. Once that was done, Burnett loaded a few bags into one of his cars. Then the two set out on what would prove to a be a five-and-a-half-hour crawl down PCH along with more than 200,000 other residents told to flee as the Woolsey Fire moved quickly toward the seaside enclave from the Agoura Hills area.
For Downey, the emotional jolt of the fire danger didn’t sink in until much later. “We didn’t have a lot of time for sentimentality,” Downey says. “We did have a moment as we went out the front door where we glanced back and embraced. We were uncertain if we would ever walk through our door again.”
During that nerve-racking drive, Downey couldn’t stop thinking about images from Paradise, the fire-ravaged town in Northern California, where several were killed when fire overtook their cars on a highway. “The smoke [plumes] kept getting bigger and the sky kept getting darker,” she says. “I just kept praying.”
The home that Downey and Burnett have shared for 13 years — a haven they call “The Sanctuary” — made it through the inferno. Downey knows how fortunate they are and emphasizes that her focus is on being part of efforts within the tight-knit community to aid those who lost everything. That list includes their friend and neighbor Gerard Butler.
“Malibu is a strong community. People will come together and figure this out — it’s going to be a very messy cleanup,” she says. “We will get to go home. We are heartbroken for the hundreds of others who don’t get to go home.”