Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Katie Gorak

Katie Gorak

Face of Malibu Rebuilds is a new 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 johanna@johannaspinks.com or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at emily@malibutimes.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.


Katie Gorak is a 17-year-old senior at Malibu High School, on the water polo team, and in the normally difficult process of waiting to hear back from college applications. Under normal circumstances, Katie would also be mentally preparing to leave home—but the Woolsey fire took her family residence in the Malibu Highland mountain area and Katie’s expected way forward.  Wise beyond her years, she normally loves going to movies, collecting things and listening to music. She was out of school this important senior year for 21 days due to the fire.  In an emotional interview with artist Johanna Spinks at her temporary rental home, she spoke about the sudden loss of the home and foundation she loved so much.

What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.

I moved here to Malibu when I was about five years old, from West LA. My mom remarried, so we went from three kids to five, and we had to find a bigger house, which was here in Malibu. I have been living in that house ever since. The house was up in the mountains—a small neighborhood. It’s weird, there are houses close by, but the neighborhood is so remote. I loved growing up there, because I had best friends growing up there, too. My best friend, who is still my best friend, was two minutes away. [She also lost the home her father built.] It was a good place to grow up, because we were such a big family and we had room to grow. My room used to be blue and green; it had posters all over it. Then I painted it white. Then I put posters up again. We could switch rooms. The house was big enough that we had our own space.

What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

We all knew that there was a fire. I was at water polo practice that Thursday afternoon when our water polo coach told us we had to go home, as he was worried the roads would close. My mom was watching the news, which she did every night. She was switching back and forth between channels. Even before there was a mandatory evacuation in our area, my mom just wanted to leave to be safe. We left the house to stay with friends in Malibu West at around 10 p.m. I thought we would be back so I just took a box of photographs. We have been evacuated about three times before. Every time before, I had to pack to unpack. I stayed the night in Malibu West with friends. The Gonzalez family came down and in the morning we all went to Zuma Beach from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

When we knew the fire had jumped the 101 Freeway, we knew it wasn’t going to be very good for us. John Gonzalez, [a family friend and local dentist] stayed at the neighborhood during the night to try and save his home until his hose broke. When he left the neighborhood, he told us the hill behind my house was on fire. About 8 a.m. in the morning, we knew the house was gone. 

The smoke was terrible at Zuma. The adults were like: “Do we go? Or do we stay?” I said to my mom: “We have to go or we are never going to leave.” At that point, Zuma was evacuating and everyone was going to be headed in the same direction. It took us an hour-and-a-half on PCH, as the traffic had died down somewhat by then. Then we went to my grandpa’s house in the Palisades, and then later that day I went to my dad’s house in Brentwood. I stayed there for about three nights and, once my sister, Hayley, got back from New Orleans, we drove to Oxnard to meet my mom and step dad. We stayed at the Oxnard Homeward Suites for about a week-and-a-half and then came to a friend’s town house in Malibu. 

What will your rebuild look like?

I think we are a lot better than we were. We are doing relatively well. As of right now, we are planning on rebuilding. We are looking at this as an opportunity to build the house we always wanted. That house was really good to us for a really long time, but it’s not what we need anymore, as there aren’t five kids living there. It will just be my parents and they can build the house they want now around us all having left home.

What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?

I think it’s probably just like the “stuff,” because there are a lot of things I wanted to show to my kids one day. 

I wanted to come back my entire life and show people the home where I lived. In a way, it’s nice it didn’t happen last year, or another year, because there is really nothing holding me back from leaving now as I graduate high school. If this was going to happen any year, it’s the better year. It could be a lot worse. The feelings are different for all of us. Three of my siblings aren’t living there as they have gone to college already. Hayley [22-year-old sister] has been a source of comfort for me as we are really going through the same thing, but differently. She is the only thing that is keeping me sane. 

Any shining moments?

I think people’s kindness is definitely a big part of it. I think it’s funny how I have been connecting with people who have lost their homes and I make jokes about it, but people who haven’t lost their homes and hear me get really uncomfortable. I always say I joke to cope. It’s my way of dealing with it. 

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

I think it’s the balance between trying to figure out where my life is going, in the middle of such uncertainty, being a senior in high school and in the middle of college applications.  Everything in my life is really uncertain right now and that is the most difficult thing.

Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?

Hmmm… Treasure your things and take evacuation seriously. 

I was a collector. I would collect weird things. I had a really big record collection. I had really weird shoes—I just got some white bedazzled cowgirl boots from some weird website. Everyone told me not to get him or her ‘cause they were ugly, but I loved them.