From Left: Sam?McGee?and Colton?Sarlo?working on hot spots, Westward Beach. (Photo: Jack Platner) Childhood friends Sam?McGee?and Greg?Berceda?at Westward Beach. (Photo: Jack Platner)
The fire approached the Old Place from a few different directions. First, it crept up behind the restaurant. Then it tore up a ridge, incinerating his neighbor Gary’s house. It returned later, roaring up a dry creek bed. “When a fire is wind-driven, it’s a giant, unpredictable monster with tentacles of flame that shoot out ahead of it,” Runyon said. “You know it’s not going to stop until it hits the ocean.”
Runyon lost all sense of time. But he remembers serene moments. He was running along a path, through a flock of quail. “Normally when you approach a bunch of quail, they take off. But I looked down and they were parting to let me through. Then I looked back, and they had closed up and were all running behind me. I’d never been that close to a quail.”
He also remembers the moment Gary, “an old guy from the mountains,” drove across a burning bridge before it buckled. Its asphalt roadway was starting to crack. “It had a sag, like a swayback horse,” Runyon said. Gary drove up, intending to cross. Runyon urged him not to. “Gary just gave me this big grin and said, ‘Fuck it. I think I can make it.’ He gunned it, bounced across the bridge, and disappeared into a cloud of smoke,” Runyon said. The bridge gave way soon after.
Runyon especially remembers when the winds shifted. The giant orange glow was coming back up the canyon, now backlit by the sunrise. “Right before the wall of fire comes, the wind is blowing toward you,” he said. “When the wind suddenly shifts, and the fire changes direction, all that energy and force gets sucked back into the fire. The fire is still close, but it gets incredibly still and quiet.”
At some point, Runyon came upon a fire safety officer. Knowing the Woolsey was ocean-bound, Runyon approached the officer and said: “I have a mother. She’s in our family home. She’s out by the beach. She’s 80 years old. Somebody’s gotta get her out.” The officer said, “The fire’s not going there,” and Runyon thought, “It’s already there, you dumb fuck.” He understood that he would have to drive to his mother himself through back roads.
The trip was treacherous. His truck kept stalling. At one point, a waxed canvas roll that he had in the back of his truck started shooting out flames “like a roman candle,” and he had to ditch it. But here again, there were moments of calm, like when he passed a Latino man leading a bunch of small ponies to safety.
When Runyon got to his mother’s house, he found that she had already been evacuated. Latino workers had urged her out, he later learned. (His mother had protested: “I’ve been through this before! I’ve got my walker!”) The workers also saved a number of houses. “If it weren’t for my neighbors’ workers—undocumented immigrants—the whole neighborhood would be gone,” Runyon said. “They were on it like a hive of angry hornets.”
When a giant firestorm hits the beach, it doesn’t always stop right away. It might crawl along the coast a bit. By sundown, the Woolsey was in Paradise Cove, eight miles southeast of Matador.
There, Andy Lyon, a 56-year-old surfer who works in real estate, made a split decision to defend his house, sending his wife and 1-year-old baby to evacuate without him. Lyon filled plastic bins with water and put them on his roof. As the fire closed in, it ignited Lyon’s 1972 Plymouth Valiant in the driveway.
With the water bins and a garden hose, Lyon fended off the flames all night. He lost a toenail and injured his collarbone but saved the house. It was a mysterious impulse, Lyon told me: “I had to know that there was nothing more I could do. I thought, ‘If it’s going to go, I’ve got to see it go with my own eyes. I’ve got to see all my shit burn. I’ve visually got to see it.’”
More than 250,000 residents were now under mandatory evacuation. But by late Friday night, it was clear that an untold number had stayed behind. There were elderly people who hadn’t been able to get out and people like Lyon, who had stayed to fight the fire on their own.
Some got out and went back in. Keegan Gibbs, a 35-year-old photographer who grew up in Point Dume, evacuated from Topanga on Friday with his wife and 1-year-old daughter. Later that night, he saw his parents’ Point Dume home on television, on fire. “We saw our house burning on the news,” Gibbs told me.
This was surreal. Although fires are a fact of life in Malibu, they don’t typically jump PCH and hit Point Dume, a peninsula between Zuma Beach and Paradise Cove. “I felt guilt for not doing enough for my family,” Gibbs said. He learned by text that some of his friends, like Sam McGee, had stayed behind to battle the fire. “Sam was fighting the fire in Dickies shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.”