Rebuilding the neighborhood

The fifth anniversary this week of the most devastating fire in Malibu’s history marks a milestone for those survivors who have rebuilt and for those who could not.

Driven by 60-mile-per-hour Santa Anas, the firestorm raced in from the Valley, tore through the Santa Monica Mountains and down to Pacific Coast Highway in a matter of hours. When it was over, three people were dead and 350 homes were destroyed.

Connie Cornett stood in the parking lot of the old Sea Lion restaurant (now Duke’s) on that windy afternoon and watched her possessions go up in smoke. Cornett and her husband, Fred, lost everything, including a prized $45,000 piano and family treasures. “100 percent,” she says of the loss. “We started from scratch.” The Cornetts rebuilt their home on Las Flores Mesa and returned 2 1/2 years ago. For them, the fire seems like ancient history, and they have gone on with their lives. “We’re very happy to be back,” Cornett says. “We don’t really dwell on it.”

On Rambla Vista, Zane Meckler shared a similar experience when flames jumped over to his street. As the neighborhood burned, Meckler raced inside to grab what he could. There wasn’t much. “We lost everything but our cat and a few miscellaneous papers,” he recalls. Giving up on Malibu crossed his mind, but not for long. “My wife came up afterwards. She looked at the panoramic views and said, ‘We’ve got to rebuild.” Like the Cornetts, Meckler and his wife, Lisette, spent about two years trying to get their lives back together.

But even after five years, there are plenty of painful reminders. There is the ghostly presence of lone chimneys and exposed foundations where houses used to be. Malibu Presbyterian Church pastor Dr. David Worth assisted many families who lost their homes. Not all of them decided to rebuild. “For me, that was one of the hardest things,” he recalls. “The number of people who left the community.” Still, Worth says, he is very proud of the way everyone in the city pulled together during a terrible crisis. “We had synagogues, churches, service clubs and schools all working as one.”

Within the city limits, 268 homes were destroyed by the fire. Building applications have been submitted for 186 of those properties, 167 permits have been issued and 118 have passed their final inspection. That still leaves more than 80 homes unaccounted for. According to Building and Safety Services Technician Donna Niemeyer, the property owners have apparently decided to sell or quit. “There’s no activity on those at all,” she says.

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While the 1993 disaster seems like a distant memory for some, fire concerns are never far away. “You look at the brush all around,” Meckler observes, “That’s a real good indication that some people haven’t learned their lesson.” Vegetation management expert John Thomas agrees. “After a fire everyone is gung ho about clearance,” he says. “But people get more and more lax every year that goes by without one. It’s just human nature.”

Many residents know that a repeat performance is always a possibility. But even with the danger, they say it is part of living in Malibu. After 45 years, Cornett is not about to change her mind. “Some people think we’re crazy,” she says. “But we think we belong here.”

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