Blog: It’s Been a Year

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Burt Ross

It’s been a year since our community was devastated by the Woolsey Fire, the worst calamity in the history of LA County. The aftermath will be felt by all of us for years to come, and we don’t know how long it will take for a “new normal”  (whatever that means) to take hold.

It is virtually impossible for those of us who lost our homes not to relive those horrible days. My bride and I were on the East Coast when we saw the flames on television. For what seemed like eternity, we had no idea whether our home survived, and then the surreal news came that everything was gone. 

We flew home and spent the night at the LAX Sheraton. Then we stayed at the homes of different friends for weeks until we were able to rent a house in Malibu.

I will never forget when we were finally allowed back into Malibu. The PCH was virtually traffic free, and the blackened hillsides and skeletal trees told the terrible tale. 

When we entered our property, much of it seemed just like it had been. The three car garage, the driveway, the street-side landscaping, the car—all pretty much appeared as we had left it except for the inescapable pile of debris and ash where our house had been—not just a house, but our home for seven years.

The extreme sense of emptiness and hurt was mitigated by the overwhelming kindness and generosity of people in town. The refusal of restaurants to charge us even though they had lost most of their business, and, of course, the hugs and offers of assistance from fellow Malibuites made me feel that our rebuilding in Malibu was the right decision.

Over time I suffered the almost daily reminder of things we lost—everything from the mundane like a pair of sandals to the sentimental like a pocket watch given to me by a high school French teacher.  And, of course, there were the irreplaceable works of art given to me by my parents, and which I had hoped to pass on to my children. 

The daily visits to the site (as if by staring at the pile of debris I could somehow wish it away and replace it with what was) gave way to the beginning of the rebirth—the removal of the debris.  For reasons hard to explain, a hole in the ground seemed like a vast improvement over a mound of twisted metal and ash.

Thanks to the city’s fast tracking the application process, we just got our building permit. The city has generously waived permit fees which has saved us a small fortune.  We have assembled our team—architect, general contractor, interior designer and landscape designer—and we are ready to proceed. We understand that we are among the fortunate ones who had good insurance—The Hartford through AARP, and their caring and responsive adjuster. We don’t take this for granted.

Within the next 18 months or so, I hope to be in our new house. It will take some time before the house will feel like our home, because only memories make a house a home. A home is what we lost, but with some luck, a home is what we will have again.