In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire destroyed 1,643 residences and commercial buildings in incorporated and unincorporated Los Angeles County and Ventura County.
“Many people were just completely traumatized by the fire,” says City of Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer. “They were being displaced into a temporary residence and it was a completely overwhelming event financially and emotionally.”
Malibu residents who choose to rebuild are not only on the path to having a place called home, but also to rebuilding their lives. More than one year later, the process is slow, with less than half of residents applying to rebuild within the city limits, according to Farrer. As of Jan. 20, the Malibu Rebuilds website states that 52 building permits have been issued, while one resident was given an occupancy certificate.
“(They may be) in dispute with their insurance company, under insured, trying to decide whether or not to rebuild and other factors,” says Farrer.
Residents have the option of a Like for Like Rebuild (rebuilding in the same location and same size), Like for Like plus 10% Rebuild (rebuilding same location + up to 10% more square footage and/or height increase) or Major Change to Residence (rebuilding with significant changes).
“For people who were like to like, we will waive their permit fees,” says Farrer. “If they want to build a larger home that is 50% larger, those fees are not waived.”
Farrer says the council’s budget runs every year between July 1 to June 30, with the Woolsey Fire recovery being in the top three priorities for the year. The city has also eased the burden by expediting fire rebuilds and hiring additional staff.
“As a council, we want to see many residents rebuild their homes and lives as quickly as possible,” says Farrer.
Bibi Jordan’s house in Decker Canyon with her partner, Bruce, holds special memories. She hosted Airbnb travelers and volunteers for more than 10 days at a time and grew organic produce and cooked meals.
“I could walk outside and pick fresh produce from the garden as the seasons changed,” says Jordan. “It was a land to develop a community and healing through hospitality and organic food.”
Bibi Jordan left her house of 20 years for the last time on Nov. 9, 2018, taking with her one memento from each family member stored in her library room, such as a watercolor painting and handmade lace her sisters had given her, along with items from her mother and son. Instead of heading south, she headed north toward Oxnard, where she booked herself into a motel.
“I was fleeing for my life; it was terrifying,” says Jordan. “I was thinking of family and my life. Each one (item) had a story and memory to it.”
Jordan later learned through an online comment that the fire had taken her home. She was not able to return to where her home once stood until two weeks later.
“When you live in Malibu, you think you’re prepared for fire and we were well-prepared in terms of sprinklers under the gutters and hydrants,” says Jordan. “Fact of the matter is, the nature of wildfires has changed dramatically.”
For now, Jordan is renting a home in Oxnard. She is currently working with a building contractor little by little, day by day, and is waiting for Fire Department approval to begin the rebuild process.
“We would’ve liked to be back there now,” says Jordan. “The longer we have to hold off to rebuild, the more issues and concerns are likely to happen with rain and erosion. You may want to rebuild, but there are new regulations that might mean not being able to rebuild on land or because you don’t have enough money.”
Jordan also directed a documentary called “Phoenix Sisterhood of Malibu,” which features Jordan and four of her friends taking the events of the Woolsey Fire and turning it into a healing process.
“When your house burns down, you lose much more than anything that you are aware of,” says Jordan. “Space affects your personality and relationships. What everyone’s learned is you have to lose your attachment to having things. You need to try as hard as you can that every present moment is your dream.”
Musicians Leslie Bixler and her husband, Bill, had returned to their home in Latigo Canyon of 22 years the night before the fire began. The next morning, they found themselves leaving again for the last time, packing up two vehicles with a saxophone, guitars, artwork, documents, jewelry and their cat.
“I took the pillows and blanket because it reminded me of the smell of the house,” says Bixler. “We left behind so many things. We had a Steinway Grand Piano that was Bill’s grandfather’s and classic vintage keyboards. We had a recording studio and we lost a lot of instruments.”
The couple eventually ended up at a motel in Culver City. A few days later, she received a call from television personality Brody Jenner informing her that their house was a complete loss. The property also had a guest house and a rental unit above the garage that they hosted through Airbnb.
When she was able to return to the remains of her home, Bixler felt numb.
“Only one house made it on our entire street,” says Bixler. “It took a long time to feel anything because I was still in that emergency mind space.”
Bixler says between getting the debris removed, soil tested for contaminants, the septic system checked and fire clearance, she and her husband continue to see the process through in order to obtain their building permit.
“Things you never think about we’ve had trouble with,” says Bixler. “The codes changed and insurance only allows so much for upgrades. We would lose over half of our investment even more if we give up now.”
The couple also got an early start with the engineering and architecture plans but are currently at a halt.
“At the moment, we’re stalled because we decided to use an unconventional building system with fireproof panels,” says Bixler. Bixler added that the University of Southern California will soon be conducting a live seismic test for the panels. If passed, the Bixler’s will be the first to have these types of panels installed.
“We have small improvements to make it safer and more fire-resistant,” says Bixler. “Our other house had more character because we had rock (landscape) work done and we had to tear out the rock sculptures.”
Bixler says the design of the house is the same as their last one, except narrower and longer. The new house will also have sprinklers installed and more clearance around the property. For now, they are in a rental in Latigo Canyon near their future rebuild home.
“If we get our permit in a few months, no matter how fast we’re going, so many things come up that are not in our control,” says Bixler. “We are just getting permission to start the foundation.”
At the fire support groups she attends, she says attendees are in similar situations and feel like nothing can be done to make the process move faster.
“You want to move on and feel better but you’re stuck in a process you didn’t ask for,” says Bixler. “The vibe (around the city) is really dark. A lot of businesses have suffered and the population on the west end is displaced.”
Permit in Hand
Jamie Ottilie is one of the residents that was granted a permit by the City of Malibu last November. He lived in Point Dume on lower Wandermere Road for 24 years, where 26 of 37 homes were destroyed.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling (having the permit),” says Ottilie. “My house was where my son spent his first three years and his swing in the backyard went away. I explained to him what happened and that we would be living in a forest house (in Calabasas) for a year.”
After careful monitoring the fire throughout the day, he later evacuated with his wife and son to Pepperdine University. Ottilie wanted to return to his house to gather more items, but was not allowed due to the roadblocks.
“I had packed most of the important documents and laptop. but I forgot to take the emergency cash. I also had an art collection,” says Ottilie. “I just sat on other side of the roadblock and watched Point Dume burn.”
He was informed his house had burned down when a neighbor texted him a video of landscaping burning on his street. He was also listening to the scanner when fire trucks tried to extinguish the flames.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life and I’m a realist when things go wrong,” says Ottilie. “I woke up Saturday, called my insurance company and filed a claim for the cars and the house.”
For his new home, Ottilie decided to build the same house Like to Like with three bedrooms and two bathrooms plus 10%. He returned with his family to a rental in Point Dume to be near the rebuild. He is still deciding on a contractor.
“It was the only way to quickly do this,” says Ottilie. “I’m hoping to move back into the house before February of 2021.”
Ottilie’s advice for residents waiting for their building permits is to reach out for the community for help and not to lose hope.
“There are several social media groups and organizations that are well-versed on how to help through the process,” says Ottilie. “I also got advice from other people who had permits. It takes time and is frustrating but you can figure it out.”
Approved by Planning: 68
Under Plan Review: 91
Building Permits Issued: 52
Homes Completed: 1
Like for Like Rebuild: 61
Like for Like + 10% Rebuild: 137
Major Change to Residence: 14
Unincorporated Los Angeles County
Homes Damaged/Destroyed: 397
Building Permits Filed: 88
Building Permits Granted: 38
Occupancy Certificates: 5
Unincorporated Ventura County
Homes Destroyed: 107
Homes Damaged: 35
Building Permits Granted: 12
Building Permit Applications: 24
Occupancy Certificates: 2
Source: Los Angeles County Public Works Department, Malibu Rebuilds, Ventura County Resource Management Agency