The Woolsey was fast and furious, Los Angeles County’s biggest blaze ever, a wall of flame that ignited south of Simi Valley and quickly rolled over hills and destroyed wildlife and homes – lots of homes – during a wind-driven push that ended at the Pacific coast in Malibu.
Over three days, the Woolsey fire, which started a year ago Friday, Nov. 8, turned 151 square miles of golden chaparral into a blackened scar across the earth, in the shape of a plump, backward, craggy C straddling Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
A quarter-million people fled out of harm’s way. Three died.
An estimated 1,643 structures were destroyed, about 900 of which were homes in Los Angeles County alone.
That devastation upended the lives of thousands, many who had come to this rugged landscape to escape the bustle of Los Angeles County’s dense suburbs. Over the decades, some homes had been destroyed in other fires, homeowners said, but the residents could largely fight off blowing embers with garden hoses.
Woolsey was different. Likely started by Southern California Edison equipment, which an executive with Edison International has admitted, insured losses tied to the Woolsey fire are expected to reach $3 billion or even $5 billion. The true figure is surely much larger, as many victims have reported being under-insured or without insurance at all.
Today, there are no more charred hillsides, no lingering smoky haze and no fire engines crowding hilly neighborhoods. But turn a corner from an unscathed swath, and the destruction can’t be missed – entire neighborhoods, some with historic homes built when Malibu, Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks were developed, are gone.
Tons of ash and rubble that was once walls, roofs, furniture and mementos have been carted away. For entire blocks, all that remain are concrete foundations and signs advertising construction companies – and the decisions residents have to make about whether to stay, or to go.
On the vast majority of the empty lots, new construction has not yet begun to rise.
Some property owners are still emotionally processing what happened to them and what they want to do next. Some are fighting insurance companies, or trying to come up with plans they can afford based on the settlements they’ve received. Others know they want to rebuild but are still working through the permit process. And some have simply moved on, selling their properties to new owners willing to take on the risk of another wildfire.
None of the municipal governments overseeing the area apparently has individually issued more than a few dozen construction permits.
In unincorporated Los Angeles County, the Woolsey fire destroyed 369 homes and damaged another 28; about 260 more accessory structures such as barns and garages were damaged or destroyed as well. Yet, so far, the county has issued only 12 permits for complete home rebuilding, all of which are under construction, and 17 more permits for partial repairs or work on accessory structures.
In unincorporated Ventura County, out of the 165 structures damaged or destroyed, one home and one accessory structure have been rebuilt. Nine more permits have been issued and 11 applications are being reviewed. County officials do expect almost everything to be rebuilt, eventually.
“A year – it seems like a long time, but there’s a lot to process, both personally and preparing to submit a permit application,” said Winston Wright, Ventura County’s planning division manager.
Here’s a look at five homeowners, and their decisions.
Bretonne, 80, lived at her home in the hills above Malibu’s Zuma Beach for 41 years.
She and a friend bought the place in 1977. The friend got married and lived in the three-bedroom, ranch-style house with her husband.
Bretonne stayed out back in the granny flat, a cottage, hidden among the property’s lush trees, reminders of the land’s time as a nursery.
The night the Woolsey fire tore through Malibu, all three fled, four dogs and five cats in tow. The 1951 house was destroyed.
Now, Bretonne bivouacs in a trailer at the end of the brick walkway that used to lead to her front porch. Her dog, Lucy, a shaggy black mix who might have some Corgi in her, keeps watch.
The couple is waiting out construction by renting elsewhere.
After nearly a year, she’s on the verge of finally seeing the foundation laid down for her new home. She could still be months from stepping inside.
Life will not be easy until that day.
“Living in a trailer sucks,” she says.
Plans for three different companies that build pre-fabricated homes fell through before her goddaughter’s boyfriend offered to build the new house to Bretonne and her friends’ specifications. She’s still fighting her insurance company but will almost certainly come out of the deal under-insured.
“We only have so much money,” she said. “We’re old.”
Still, with the help of the goddaughter’s boyfriend, the overall living space will swell by 10 percent.
The 65-year-old moved into her Agoura Hills home on Colodny Drive 35 years ago. Back then, the canyon community was filled with blue-collar workers, mostly metal workers and machinists noisily working out of their homes, far away from L.A.’s quieter suburbs.
Others, like Rosson, were artists. A woodworker, she crafts delicate pieces of furniture, such as her 1980 “Delight Rocking Chair,” a striking, serpentine affair in a collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
This day, Rosson, in a red tank top and jeans, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, struggled to move about her property because of a bad back.
Her plot is empty except for her trailer – hers was the only house on this stretch of Colodny to burn.
She doesn’t know what she’s going to do.
“I haven’t made any steps forward,” she said. “I just can’t figure out what I’m going to do next.”
Her home was not insured. Her brother and her church have helped out financially, and she bought her trailer with FEMA money. Her funds are running out. She could sell the lot.
“I love this area,” she says. “It’s going to be really tough to leave.”
Years ago, Niblock, 54, drove across the country with his wife looking for a place to settle down.
They found their dream home at the bottom of Crags Road, a ravine that runs through the hills surrounding Malibou Lake in unincorporated L.A. County.
From his property, the mechanical engineer with graying, mad-professor hair above a light, scruffy beard and an orange T-shirt turned to the sun, basking in the warmth.
“Once we visited Southern California, we understood why people move here,” he said with a big grin.
Woolsey left nothing behind of the 1920s house they bought except a rock outcropping serving as its foundation, which rains pushed down the hill. Every home on the north side of Crags Road, about 10 in all, burned in the fire.
A yellow canopy concealed some tools; a worker or two walked about.
L.A. County requires residents in fire zones to rebuild their homes as close as possible to the original but with modern environmental and earthquake-safety standards.
His house was fully covered. But rebuilding to code will take a lot of time. In three to six months, he figured, workers can start building his home.
“We’re not sulking about,” he said. “We lost our stuff, but it’s no big deal.”
A resident here in Malibu for decades, the 77-year-old endured a 1978 fire that devastated the city, with family members dousing sparks that rained onto her property – saving her ranch-style house.
“That’s what we planned to do this time,” Taylor said.
But there was no fighting the Woolsey. Staring at the hills behind her home on a recent, clear Tuesday morning, Taylor recalled that first night and swept a hand across the landscape.
“It was a wall of fire 14 miles long,” she recalled. “There was a vortex of wind blowing.”
Even the pool is gone.
Since then, after her house burned down, Taylor’s tried to be on the property every day. She’s under insured, too, but is thinking about building a prefabricated home in the same spot with a spectacular ocean view.
“It’s hard to be away,” she said.
No matter what comes next for Armijo and her family, it won’t be the same.
They want to return to their Agoura home, but aren’t sure yet if they can afford to rebuild.
Even if they do, the neighborhood will be different; theirs was one of six homes in a row on a ridge off of Mulholland Highway that burned down.
And they can never get back the tangible memories they’d accumulated in the nearly 40 years they lived in their old house.
“The things you had, the mementos, the pictures, the things you can’t replace,” she said.
“That’s still hard for me,” said Armijo, 68, “going to people’s houses that have all the stuff that I don’t have anymore. … It makes me cry. I hate that part. But then again, we always try to look at the silver lining.”
Armijo, her husband, Joseph Genchi, 82, her mother, Trudy Armijo, 90, and the family dog got out unscathed: “We’re not heartbroken.”
After spending 2½ weeks in motels, they found a house in Simi Valley for now, half the size of the one that burned down but better than the trailers and garages a lot of fire victims are living in.
They didn’t have enough insurance, but it took only a few months to get a settlement that they felt was generous.
Still, it wasn’t enough to rebuild according to the first plan their architect drew up. Armijo wants to make a decision by the end of this year whether they can afford a scaled-down plan, or need to sell the lot and buy something cheaper near where they’re living now.
Two things have helped her family cope, ever since the adrenaline of those initial days wore off and left them stressed and struggling.
“One is, we’re old, we’re more mature, we’ve lived through hardship,” she figured. “The other is that we have each other. You have to pick things that are helping you get through.”