My Neighborhood Was on Fire. My Neighbors Came Together to Save It.

My Neighborhood Was on Fire. My Neighbors Came Together to Save It.

at warI spent five days last year fighting the California wildfires in Malibu. It felt like the combat patrols I had been on as a Marine in Afghanistan.From Left: Layne Stratton, Jack Platner, Beau Biglow, Leo Harrington, Sam McGee, Alec Houge, Riley Smoller, Andrew Jacobson, Nick Nushawg, Jake Kelley, Keegan Gibbs, Ryland Lancaster and Robert…


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I spent five days last year fighting the California wildfires in Malibu. It felt like the combat patrols I had been on as a Marine in Afghanistan.

Credit…Keegan Gibbs

In boot camp, I was surprised by the pride the other recruits took in their no-name Midwest hometowns. By contrast, I had no love for Malibu, Calif., which seemed like only one thing to me: an isolated beach town too far from the city for me to escape. I did not surf. I had no luck with girls. Years before I was old enough to enlist, the Sept. 11 attacks gave me a sure direction away from a dysfunctional home: I was determined to join the Marine Corps. So I spent my youth running Malibu’s hills, swimming its coast, avoiding a home that smelled of stale white wine and counting the days until I could enlist in the military. But my antipathy toward Malibu did nothing to stem a stream of brotherly abuse from the other recruits for what they perceived as my star-studded hometown. Their idea of Malibu was very different from what my reality had been.

That was 2007. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing. I deployed to Afghanistan as a radio operator with Second Force Reconnaissance in 2009 and again in 2010. My war was defined by the seven men I lived, trained, fought, laughed and cried alongside. Like any family we had roles and complicated dynamics, but we also had something more: The hardships and dangers we faced together, the level of skill and dedication we recognized in one another, fostered trust and a deep sense of acceptance. It only occurred to me as I drove off base for the last time in 2011 that family was what I had been looking for.

After leaving the Marine Corps, I studied fashion and tailoring, which led me to fashion photography. I kept up the pace of travel I had known as a Marine, but under considerably better conditions. Yet no fashion week or foreign destination could replace the feeling of purpose and tribal closeness I felt in the military.

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On Nov. 9, 2018, I awoke in my house in Malibu, aching from the dull pains of a motorcycle accident a few days earlier. When I saw the smoke coming off the mountains to the north, I knew it was the beginning of a bad day. The Woolsey Fire would eventually destroy 1,643 structures, burn through 97,000 acres and displace more than 250,000 people.

I shuffled my possessions into my car as the cellphone networks and internet crashed. I lived alone in a rented house, having moved back to Malibu a year earlier, and my obligations to the rest of the world seemed minimal. But as I prepared to leave, I felt a strong sense of commitment to my sleepy beachside community. As an adult who had seen a lot of the world and had come to feel how fast life goes by, I had come to appreciate the beauty and peacefulness of this place that as a teenager I had been so eager to leave.

With the normal lines of communication crashing and no way to gain a clear picture of the hazards around me, I evacuated, bringing two neighbors out with me. We reached the highway as flames arched across the road leading from our neighborhood. When we sped past our local fire station, it was hemmed in by fire.

I evacuated to my cousin’s home in Santa Monica, about 20 miles down the coast, but I felt little relief in escape. The news made it clear that all of Malibu was burning, and to my horror, much of the firefighting resources in the state had been sent to the fire in Paradise, almost 500 miles away in Northern California, leaving Malibu virtually undefended. I had assumed my city was well protected; now I felt like I had abandoned the place and done nothing to save it. I had a strong urge to return and do anything I could to help. But I wasn’t firefighter, so was there really anything I could do? This internal debate kept me up most of the night. By morning I decided to act, if only for my own peace of mind.

When I got back to Malibu, the town was so dense with smoke that I couldn’t see down to the end of the streets I rolled past. On my street, the fire had stopped four houses from my own. My mother’s home two miles away was ash and a burning gas line. Without emergency services and with most of the residents evacuated, the fire now burned unchecked. Across the canyon, the main body of the wildfire prowled outside town; closer in, fires flared at random in the residential streets, as houses or stands of trees were ignited by burning ash carried on the wind.

To get a better sense of the destruction, I hiked to the top of Point Dume, a promontory near my house that also lent its name to the neighborhood. Soon I spotted flames nearby and drove to them, hoping to stop them before they spread. There was an older couple sleeping in their S.U.V. at the foot of the hill. They had just lost their home after a 42-hour battle to save it.

Minutes later three trucks arrived, packed with young men, their faces covered in rags and particle masks. The drivers, unmasked, had the hard, strained faces of men in combat. I was overjoyed. They arrived with shovels and buckets — the meager weapons they could scavenge to save what remained of Malibu from the flames. They were less excited to see me, standing there with one leg still covered in bandages from my accident, equipped with a vintage convertible that was not exactly the ideal vehicle for the circumstances. Despite their skepticism, they let me join them. As night fell, I followed the group down into the smoke and water of a nearby gully. We were a ragged silent patrol, in a landscape of charred sand, distant fires, smoking vehicles and black water. It felt more like a patrol in Afghanistan than my California neighborhood.

Using barrier-breaching techniques I remembered from my Marine Corps training, I moved in front of the group, breaking through fences so we could get to the fire. We toiled past midnight, breaking four shovels in the process. Beau Biglow, a fourth-generation Malibu resident, had been fighting the fires for days and was falling asleep midstride. The guys’ Vans sneaker soles melted from the heat.

We slept at a nearby trailer park, falling across every horizontal surface in a home that had been evacuated by the family of one of our group. It felt like the end of so many patrols I had been on in Afghanistan. The dead sleep, the hangman humor, the stale-urine smell of combat. For the first time, our masks came off, and we exchanged names. We were all from the Point Dume neighborhood, and soon local residents who stayed behind began calling us the Point Dume Bombers, after a crew of Malibu surfers who looked after their local beaches in the 1970s. We resolved to protect the neighborhood from any more fires.

The following morning, more fires burned, but we acquired an important new weapon to fight them. One of the guys worked in film production and was able to get his hands on the high-end radios that they use while filming. Soon we had organized into three teams and I was serving as an observer from atop Point Dume, overlooking the neighborhood and the ocean, directing the Bombers by radio to fires and flare-ups I spotted. When I served as a radio operator in the Marines, our ability to communicate in the mountains of Afghanistan saved us countless times. With our radios, we could see beyond the ridgelines by talking to aircraft and other units. As the fire crept around Malibu, hiding in gullies and bluffs, I knew we would need that same type of coordination if we were to protect our homes and track the flames as they snaked through the dry hills around us. I realized my military skill set had real value here. The other Bombers worked tirelessly, without pause or complaint, with only the occasional request for cigarettes. Often our three teams were responding to different threats simultaneously.

Every Bomber had his own reason for being there. Lyon Herron had nothing to do until his chemotherapy ended. Jackson Winner saw the news in New York and jumped on a plane home, then a boat from Marina del Rey. Finding the piers closed by the evacuation order, he plunged into the ocean just beyond the surf line and swam ashore. C.J. Keossaian flew in and used back roads to sneak past the police barricades, and Sam McGee — well, Sam never left, before or during the fire. In the group, which swelled to 25, some had already lost their homes. Nobody was paid and no one had a motivation beyond feeling bound to help his hometown.

Over the next few days, the work shifted from fighting the fire to distributing aid to local residents. With the roads blocked by the police and the commercial pier closed off by the Coast Guard, supplies were brought into Malibu by boat but couldn’t be ferried all the way onto shore. Half the Bombers helped unload the boats by surfboard, kayak and dinghy. Open propellers chopped the water around them, gasoline ate away their wet suits, and fire planes, swooping down to refill their buckets, bisected their shore runs. I watched, holding my breath, from my observation post. In the Marines I was trained to coordinate fire support from aircraft and naval artillery, so now I tried to deconflict the inbound boats and the landing fire planes, much as I did when trying to keep aircraft staggered at thousands of feet as they lined up for bombing runs near friendly ground forces.

Image

Credit…Jack Platner

Image

Credit…Jack Platner

On the afternoon of Nov. 13, the fifth day under evacuation, a call came over the radio about a reckless driver. Another call quickly followed. I took down the vehicle’s description: a lifted Ford pickup, from the 1990s, tan. A third call for help reported that the truck had run someone off the road. I dialed 9-1-1 again and again, but there was no cell reception. My stomach tightened as panicked calls came in from the aid station we had set up at the bottom of the hill. The driver, a man clearly under the influence, was demanding fuel and behaving aggressively. When he was told to calm down and wait his turn, he only became more enraged. Over the radio, a voice yelled: “He says he is going to kill everyone.”

The vehicle came into sight at the bottom of the hill, speeding down the center line of a two-way road. I watched in horror as the driver stopped in the middle of the road, lurched out of the cab of his truck and ran toward an elderly woman. He changed his mind and got back into his truck, but by that time I was already sprinting down the hill. I was tired and limping, but I had my .45 pistol, a sidearm that I kept around from my time in the Marines. This relic from my past life suddenly had renewed importance.

I got down to the road just as the pickup slewed off into a narrow private drive. I tried to intercept the man’s rampage by persuading a passing car to block the driveway, hemming in the man’s truck so he couldn’t use it as a 4,000-pound weapon. I braced behind the passer-by’s car hood, as the man — at least 6 feet tall, heavyset, well into his 40s — bellowed and threatened to kill us.

He returned to his vehicle, retrieved something from inside, then began slowly walking toward me. My hand went to the pistol in my waistband. Would I have to shoot this man? Malibu, a beachside paradise, had devolved almost completely into the Helmand River Valley.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I learned how easily minds could break; the best of men were one bad day away from being monsters. And killing — even killing monsters — comes with no guarantees, except in its hold on memory. I ordered the man to stop. I pleaded. He darted into the parked car, turning our barricade into another deadly threat. I was torn between the powerful impulse to act and a moral duty not to harm. We made eye contact, and he seemed to have a change of heart. Maybe I had helped him see reason, or maybe he saw the police approaching. He took his hands from the wheel and went back to his truck. The police cruisers screeched up, officers poured out and the man was arrested. I walked away, relieved and somehow ashamed.

The next morning, no fires burned on Point Dume. It had been five days since the Woolsey Fire swept into Malibu. Still, I kept my watch on that hilltop, and the crew kept up their patrols and supply runs. But at 3 p.m., our radio network buzzed with orders of a mandatory pause on all Point Dume Bomber operations: The surf was up.

The battle had ended. Our deployment was over. By the end, it felt like I had found another tribe, nearly a decade after I had driven through the gates of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune for the last time. Twenty-three of us paddled out into the Pacific Ocean, under the cliffs of Malibu. “It’s as if the fire never happened,” one of the others remarked. We laughed hysterically as we washed for the first time in almost a week. We shook with cold. We were alive.

I knew this was brotherhood, and I knew it would end. I savored it consciously — the warm blanket of safety, the sense of common purpose and the glowing admiration that ran from one man to the next.

The evacuation order was in place for 10 days in our part of Malibu, but as the danger abated, law and local residents returned, and our spirits plummeted. I felt the approach of the same dark cloud that hovered inches above my head between deployments. When the breathless crush of crisis and action is over, there’s time to recognize the enormity of the damage that has been done and your helplessness to repair it.

For many of us, seeing Malibu in ruins and being unable to fix it was too much. Almost all the Bombers left town, at least for a while. I flew to New York, where I confided the fear, doubt and horror of the week to my closest friend, this time knowing that I wasn’t sharing these truths to help her understand, but for myself. I slept better then.

By the time I returned home, there had been attempted suicides and several overdoses among the survivors of the Malibu fire. When the holiday season arrived, it was like holidays after the apocalypse. But the Bombers met up at the top of Point Dume for Christmas, complete with a tree and a small generator to power some lights. After that, we got back to the slow, gradual business of rebuilding our lives. We each had houses to work on, family to help, relationships to tend. The Bombers still got together regularly, and strange as it sounds, it often wouldn’t take long for somebody to say, “I miss the fire, man.”

Robert Spangle is a former Marine who served from 2007 to 2011. He currently lives in Los Angeles, traveling much of the year as a photographer and designer.

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