Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Cynthia Christiaansen

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 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. 


Mother of three Cynthia Christiaansen lost her ‘down-sized” home with movie cameraman husband Dana in the recent Malibu fire, amid a hasty exit from her home—during which a car window shattered, spraying mini shards of glass across her face. Now, more than two months from that nightmare morning, recovery is slow for this couple. A permanent rental is still needed from which to supervise the rebuild of their new home. Cynthia, a down-to-earth, warm, engaging lady with a smile that lights up a room, says lessons have been learned on a personal level and credits her family’s love for pulling her through. 

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

We have lived here exactly 30 years this past fall. Our three great kids were born here, grew up here, went to Scouts, AYSO, church, Our Lady of Malibu School, the whole gamut. This house we had lived in for about seven years. It was our ‘downsize’ home. Only one of our kids, Ry, (24), officially lived at home, but he was on the road most of the time. Dana and I met and married rather late in life. We were a hard working couple in the film business and lived in Venice. After living in a loft-style place, we wanted a normal house.


What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

My husband had worked a 20-hour day and was at a philanthropic event that night, so he was in a hotel downtown. I was certain the fire wasn’t going to affect us—denial, probably. I had survived another fire in ‘93 at Rambla Pacifico. I saw the fire on the TV Friday morning. Got a couple of phone calls from my kids. Owen, 27, said: “I am coming out to help you.” He somehow got through from the south. He didn’t realize I hadn’t packed up any valuables. I made our priorities our cars. We had too many cars and too few drivers, so we shuttled cars to Zuma. We also went to Point Dume to rescue the sister of my housekeeper. 

The winds whipped up to 40 to 50 mph. A car exploded in my driveway.  A fence post from another property was flying around like a scene from “Twister.” It slammed into my car, taking out the side and window. I was covered with tiny shards of glass on the side of my face, with some blood flowing, and it was scary. I knew it was time to get out. We got desktop computers, dogs and housekeepers, and went to Zuma. My son Owen tried to go back to the house with two garden hoses but they just melted. He came back sobbing—sobbing because he couldn’t save it. Dana found us in the parking lot at Zuma; he drove all around to get there. He went back with Owen knowing the house was going or gone. If you drew a half-mile radius around our house (a corner house in Malibu Park), it looks like 85 percent has gone. 

I didn’t see the house for another week because the roadblocks kept us out. I am not arguing with that at all. I wasn’t one of those people who wanted to sift though every cubic foot. We went to Glenn’s house (daughter, 28) who lives on the east side. I think she thought we would be there for a couple of nights but we were there for a month. It was a wonderful comfort zone, which not everyone had—immediate family members to crash with. 

I was shell-shocked when I saw my house—an ash-ridden blur of “unrecognizable.” I didn’t have the strength to say maybe I could find something in this mess. 

As of a couple of weeks ago we were generously donated a back building in Malibu Park, short term. It’s in between burned down homes and damaged homes. It’s a daily reminder of what people are going through, which I rather like: people going through the same thing.

What will your rebuild look like?

Our rebuild will be subject to our insurance situation.  I think that will be a challenge around what our insurance will cover and how much the city will expedite and green light. We are planning on rebuilding, though. Our building has been yellow tagged. We had to remove some major metal things and a burned out car. I am lucky. Dana is a very “take the bull by the horns” kind of guy. We are moving forward with getting some plans drawn up, but it’s still very early days. 

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

Oh… I think just a life well lived, full of wonderful (family) stuff, all our belongings that we saved, cumulatively.  Dana has collected work tools since he was a teenager; I love “objet ‘d’art,” textiles, clothes. All that stuff went up in a flash. I think 2019 is going to be hard having to go [forward] with no real record of what we lost; 2019 will be getting the first tough stages planned. I think once you break ground it might be refreshing to see the progress of renewal, but I suspect that first year-and-a-half is going to be an ordeal and then of course finding a long-term rental, one that we can afford and, two, that is as close as possible.

Any shining moments?

Yes, the family, they really did their best. Owen got me and the dogs out safely. Glenn and her boyfriend hosted us for a month with our two dogs. That first morning, she took me to the Apple shop in what was basically my pajamas for our computers, and then shepherded me around to get the essentials. 

A week later I was listening to KNX Radio in my car and suddenly Ry was being interviewed about needing to get his car back so he could still have a job. It had been parked in Zuma for a week! He hiked from Carbon to Trancas that day to get his car back, which was thankfully still there in one piece!

Spending Christmas around such an event was interesting but the family, and their extended friends, helped pull us through with old stories. I am also so impressed with the people who found the right words—or not the right words, but actually reached out, a donation or something, texting me twice a week. That is something I have learned from for the future: how to respond to someone in loss. I don’t think I have ever done it properly before, so a little life lesson has come out of the rubble.

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

Rebuild and seeing what insurance is going to bring and still finding a place to live. 

Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?

I would just get as much research done and find as much information as you can. We have gone to all of these meetings. You have to sift through the information and find what works best for you. Try not to curl up in a ball, which is very tempting. 

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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