Woolsey Fire Disaster Dissected By Local Writer

Author Robert Kerbeck appears at a virtual Malibu Rotary Club meeting.

The drama was palpable as local author Robert Kerbeck read the opening paragraphs from his award winning “Malibu Burning” at a virtual Malibu Rotary Club meeting last week. Recognizing that “this is a crazy time,” while his book is about “back when we thought a wildfire was the worst thing that could happen to Malibu,” the Woolsey Fire was another in a string of tragedies our community has survived—one that Kerbeck and his family nearly didn’t.

Kerbeck, an actor and writer who founded the Malibu Writers Circle, described in chilling detail how “few things in this world will forever change you like the terror of thinking you’re about to be burned alive in front of your kid.” This opening section of his book quickly drew the attention of those attending the virtual book reading, even though most had lived through the very same fire in November 2018. 

Kerbeck described how the massive blaze crashed into his Malibu Park neighborhood, barreling through everything in its path, noting, “somehow there were more children fighting the blaze than firefighters.” That would include his 16-year-old son who, along with the author’s wife, helped save their wooden Victorian-style home with a garden hose, bracing against “searing winds pushing the very edge of judgment and safety in our desperation to protect our home.”

Kerbeck went on to describe how quickly the sky turned from smoky to black, so every second counted. He could see the orange glow of flames cresting over his neighborhood while desperately trying to get a water pump connected to his spa to defend his property. 

Kerbeck was prepared with hoses, pumps, masks and other gear, but he credits his supply of Phos-check fire retardant spray with helping to save his family’s home. He was finally forced to flee the property after being pelted with burning embers and nearly knocked off his feet by what he referred to as a “fire-nado.” Kerbeck’s home survived, but scores of others, of course, did not. 

After interviewing more than 200 people for his book, Kerbeck noted many factors that played into the disaster including out-of-area firefighters and others who perhaps didn’t do all they could with orders to protect lives over property.

For the future fires that will inevitably come, the author advised to harden your homes, eliminate flammable landscaping, discard wood piles next to homes and “use common sense.” 

He was shocked that Southern California Edison has not done more hardening, saying, “One thing I cannot believe is that the telephone poles on Kanan were not replaced with steel poles.” Kanan Dume Road became impassible with downed lines during Woolsey, making it even more difficult for first responders to access Malibu.

The Los Angeles Review of Books described “Malibu Burning” as “the best kind of non-fiction—so visceral it feels like fiction.” Kerbeck is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and just won an Independent Publishers Award silver medal for “Malibu Burning.” 

“Malibu Burning” is available where books are sold and at Vintage Grocers.