How Far Have We Come Since 473 Homes Burned in the Woolsey Fire?

A worker sprays water to keep dust down during debris clearance at the site of a Malibu Park home that was destroyed by the November 2018 Woolsey Fire. (April 2019)

Eighteen months after the Woolsey Fire completely destroyed 473 single family homes in the city limits of Malibu, two have been rebuilt—but many more are coming. 

The latest figures posted by the City of Malibu show that out of the 473 homes burned, 240 rebuilds have now been approved by the planning department and 100 building permits have been issued. The approval of 240 rebuilds represents 51 percent of the properties that burned, according to Yolanda Bundy, the environmental sustainability director and building official for the city.

Getting deeper into the details, six additional residences are currently under review by the planning department to make sure they meet exterior, height, square footage and biology/environmental requirements. An additional 70 are approved by planning, but haven’t yet gone to building safety (plan check)—most likely waiting for their detailed engineering drawings to be completed. Another 70 are currently being reviewed by the building safety department. Currently, 97 homes are under construction.

When asked if she thought things were going too slowly, with only two houses completed, Yolanda said, “I think the pandemic is causing delays.” However, she pointed out that even with City Hall closed, building safety stayed open and in the last nine weeks approved more than 20 homes—two or three each week.

“A lot of the consulting firms that help property owners go through the permitting process have closed down during the coronavirus and just recently started opening again,” she continued, offering one more reason for a slower process.

The city is trying to speed things up and still maintain social distancing by allowing electronic document submittals and payments during this time, instead of applicants having to appear in person. 

“The city is finding different ways of doing business,” Bundy added. They see applicants by appointment when documents need to be signed.

“I think that during the first two or three weeks of the quarantine period, construction crews were also adjusting to the changes, like wearing face masks, and that slowed down the building process,” Bundy said. “At the beginning of the shutdown, we were doing nine to 12 inspections per week, and today we’re up to 25 to 30 inspections per week. We’re getting a lot more requests from construction [teams].”

“We are still committed to making things happen, and we are still coming to work every day to City Hall and providing services to the community,” Bundy said. “It’s been a challenging time, but our staff has the heart and the devotion to continue to make things happen.” 

A local contractor for 15 years, Mark Celentano of Celentano Construction Company is currently doing one fire rebuild, with another one lined up after that. He’s also working on several non-fire-rebuild construction projects. 

When asked why he thought there were only two fire rebuilds completed so far, he said, “I know a lot of it was the insurance company payments. Insurance won’t pay until they get a bid from a contractor. When they get the bid, they tend to undervalue and argue with the rebuild costs. Then the insured has to go through the process of resubmittals and justifications for the costs, and that takes a lot of time.”

Celentano confirmed the city is giving priority to fire rebuilds over other projects, since he currently has both and is able to compare. He said the slow pace for fire rebuilds is not due to any shortage of materials, sub-contractors or inspections.

Back to the question of why only 51 percent of the burned-out property owners have begun the process of rebuilding:

Some may have given up and decided to not go through the hassle of a Malibu rebuild. Looking at the current real estate listings of vacant lots in Malibu, at least a dozen fire burn-out lots are currently for sale a year-and-a-half after the fire. There were reports of many burned lots being for sale a year ago, but no figures available on how many there were, or how many sold. 

When it comes to issues with insurance companies, there are well-documented struggles ongoing between Malibuites and their insurers.

Two weeks ago, ABC 7 local news reported on Malibu couple Richard and Linda Gibbs, who “Are in a fight with their insurance company to rebuild” and don’t have the money to rebuild their house. They have been battling State Farm for the past 18 months over the cost to rebuild and finally sued them. 

“We’re not asking for the moon here. We’re just asking for the spirit of the contract to be honored,” Richard said in the ABC 7 interview.  A spokesperson for State Farm told ABC 7 the company does not comment on pending legal issues.