Face of Malibu Rebuilds is a series from artist Johanna Spinks, featuring Malibu residents and their experiences before, during and after the Woolsey Fire. If you have a fire story you would like to share with The Malibu Times, a person of note or courage, or a person who just needs some cheer around this difficult rebuild time, to be sketched for this series, please contact Spinks at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at email@example.com.
Spinks, a professional portrait artist and longtime Malibu resident, is donating her time to this series for the interviews and sketches. Readers may remember her original Face of Malibu portrait series that ran monthly in The Malibu Times for five years. You can see more examples of her portrait work at johannaspinks.com.
Ron Semler is on the biggest nature watch of his life at the virtually wiped-out family-run historic Saddlerock Ranch. He’s waiting to see what will return from the fires of the 80,000-plus dormant vines that put Malibu Family Wines on the wine lovers’ map for many years. Devoted father of nine, Ron, 75, married to artist wife Lisa for 33 years, reflects on rebuilding their beloved Semler Malibu Estate Vineyards nestled within the ravaged Santa Monica Mountains from temporary offices overlooking the grey grid of the Ventura Freeway. He also recalls being put under the magnifying glass unfairly in a viral firestorm over the safety of long-lashed ranch favorite Stanley the giraffe in the early hours of fire evacuation.
What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.
I arrived after the fire of 1978 and acquired the initial 300 acres of The Saddlerock Ranch. It was a victim of fire then, too. The family that lived here, who were in the Arabian horse business, had lost everything. There was nothing here, but I saw the beauty of the property and the potential. In ’79 we wanted to do farming and originally grew avocados. It was a tough business, as they need a lot of water. We had 15,000 avocado trees in 1992, but we had one night when the temperature dropped into the mid-20s—a million pounds of fruit, and we lost it all. We said to ourselves: “This is a stupid business to be in!” (Smiling) When we looked at wine grapes we realized they took one-seventh of the water, so we decided we would get into it. We had lots of optimism—even though neither of us drank wine! (Laughs) We have learned a lot about wine since those days. UC Davis (Department of Viticulture and Oenology) had a weekend program about wine and my wife and two eldest daughters, Tami and Tabitha, attended every weekend. Before the fire, we got up to 15,000 cases of estate grown wine a year. We purchased fruit for our Saddlerock label from all over the state, bringing the total to 45,000 cases per year.
What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?
The day before, we realized there was a high probability of fire coming through just watched where it was going. We have always had a fire and evacuation plan in place. Our priority is human lives first; we have close to 100 people living on the land—to get them ready and get them out if something happened. While the families were getting their stuff together, we worked to move the animals in the safe spot, an evacuation pasture, no brush, nothing that can burn, and there is also a lake. We proceeded to move 150 large animals: horses, zebras, yaks, camels, Asian water buffalo and of course our lovely giraffe, Stanley. As a result of what we did, none of those animals died. The smaller animals went in the trailers and we took them with us to another ranch we own in Ventura along with the families that work with us. We worked all night. The animals can sense it (fire). It was a long, long process. You can imagine moving six buffalos? Zebras are the worst as they are highly strung. Stanley was perfectly OK. When the fire came over the ridge, that is when we moved out, about 8:30 a.m. I was very disturbed by the coverage that was going on about the animals because it was certainly untrue. (There was a social media viral firestorm in the early hours of the Woolsey Fire about the animals’ safety, particularly Stanley, who has 52,900 followers on an Instagram page.) It’s all about their agendas (on social media), building their “followers.” All of the real experts, the vets, from the county zoo, we had invited them in over the next four days to see that what we had done was correct. We know what we did and we did it right. There is nothing we can do when someone tells lies and untruths on the Internet, so we ignore it and just do it right. It was very hard to feed the animals and the people that were on the ranch (in the early post-fire days). We were able to sneak back in there. We drove up through Triunfo and drove over a hiking trail to eventually get to Kanan and get food in there. Kathryn Barger, the county supervisor—she and her staff were very helpful with this.
What will your rebuild look like?
We lost 75 structures: our main house, 13,500 square feet; our offices; five other residences; all of our barns; our auto museum; 100 cars and, sadly, a French 1905 Darracq car which was very valuable. There were only three in the world; now there are only two. My wife had a beautiful studio on the ranch that burned, as well as 50 to 60 pieces of her art. All the family housing burnt. We have brought in temporary housing for our families; they were all displaced in various trailers, so they can stay and take care of the animals. We don’t know the full extent of damage to the vineyards and we won’t know for a couple of months. You can’t tell from looking at a dormant vine whether it will flower and produce eventually. It could be as many as 50 percent of our vines that we have lost. We are going to rebuild, replant as much as we can. We, like probably most everybody else, were substantially underinsured. We have recovered most of what we were owed (from insurance) but it is a fraction of what it will cost to rebuild. We have retained attorneys to pursue a claim against Southern California Edison. Right now, I am focusing on what is revenue producing. Malibu Wine Safari (owned by son Dakota) was up and running just three weeks after. We have been rebuilding our tasting rooms, which we lost, and it looks like that will be ready end of March.
What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?
I think it’s very hard to realize that all of this happened, and particularly at my age. This is not what I expected to be doing at this point in my life. But I am determined to rebuild everything I had there and make it as nice as it was—for my family. My only wish and hope is that the county will start being a little realistic and let people build back their lives.
Any shining moments?
My family is all well and healthy, all my staff is well and healthy. Both their supports meant everything; they had no problem working seven days a week, 16 hours a day to do what they had to do. They are still doing this. It’s about the people. I will buy the best piece of fire equipment, and train my staff so we can protect ourselves in the future because nobody is going to do it for us.
What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?
Rebuild—just getting through it all.
Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?
Be strong, hang in there. You did it once, and you can do it again, wherever you are.