Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Steve Bernal

Steve Bernal

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.

Steve Bernal is used to troubleshooting in his neighborhood as a well-liked, problem-solving HOA treasurer, but nothing prepared him for losing his “Malibu Ridge” vineyard home with wife Sherry, and then having to inform most of his neighbors that two-thirds of the homes in their rustic mountain community were gone. Father of three, Steve, 60, is a mortgage and financial consultant who also holds a degree in psychology. According to Steve, “trauma doesn’t discriminate” and seeking help from friends, family and support groups is key—along with morning coffee rebuild strategy chats with his wife of 15 years. 

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

I moved here 21 years ago from Chatsworth. I was driving down Kanan and I found the house because the road was blocked. I got the first house in the Malibu Highlands; no one was here yet. Five years ago, I was elected HOA treasurer and have been doing that job ever since. We put in our vineyard in 2007. I read an article about this dynamic vineyard they were doing in Napa (using biodynamic principals, a holistic farming approach developed in the 1920s by Austrian scientist-philosopher Rudolph Steiner). We had a slope on the front of the property and thought this would work really great there. We have been producing “Malibu Ridge” wines since 2009, as a general rule less than a hundred cases a year. Where we live, we have warm days, we have volcanic soil and cool nights. The days can get into the 90s, the nights the cool 50s, so that temperature range of 30 degrees is great for growing wine. 

What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

We were woken around 3:30 a.m. One of our neighbors texted us and told us they were leaving. I wanted to go back to bed, but my wife was saying, “We have to keep an eye on this.” I just thought this was another false alarm and I didn’t take it seriously. When the flames started coming over the ridge by our house, we knew it was time to go. The next day we were able to get information about who had lost their homes. Once I had a couple of people verify it, only then was I was able to put it out there. That was really tough. I knew everybody was scattered all over the place. Having lived here the longest, and so involved in the HOA, it was better they heard it from me than on the TV. We lost two-thirds of all our homes. People were calling: when people want to know something they usually call me. There is nothing worse than wondering what is going on. Once you know what is going on, you can process it. My house was like ground zero. I was shocked by the number of homes lost. I think we all were. This is the worst-case scenario for our neighborhood.

What will your rebuild look like?

The trauma part affects everyone in the neighborhood and in Malibu, whether you have lost your home or not. Trauma doesn’t discriminate. That displacement sticks with you for a while. My graduation degree is in psychology so I am acutely aware of this. Suddenly the dam will just burst. It can be fine and then suddenly you will find yourself feeling angry. So much of this is keeping an eye on, and being kind to, your loved ones. Fortunately, there are a lot of recovery groups—grief groups—going on in Malibu. I am seeing them more and more on Facebook. I would encourage people to take advantage of that. There is a rush of adrenaline in the beginning, all the things you have to do. Then suddenly that ends after four or five weeks. We were on it. We found a house in two weeks in Agoura Hills. After that, the reality kicks in. For me, personally, there was a feeling of hopelessness; I just wanted to stay home, watch TV. That lasted three weeks. I still had to do some things with the HOA and insurance issues there. I moved through that and went to a support group in Malibou Lake and that hauled me up a little bit. Based on what we have been told, we will break ground in May. Our goal is to get done. We are “movers.” We are awesomely excited about the new house. Our vineyard survived, so there will be lots of windows for the view. It’s going to be pretty cool to open that first bottle of wine. One of the ways we are going to be able to build what we want and keep it on budget is we decided to use a builder/contractor who is going to take it to the dry wall stage, then Sherry and I will be responsible for all the finish work.

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

I look at the city stuff as a process you have to go though. Seeing your kids suffer (who grew up in the home)—that was really hard. 

Any shining moments?

How resilient Mother Nature is. We have two hobby beehives on our property, which got charred on the outside, but the bees are still coming and going. When we first came up here, all the oak trees were burned; now, four months later, many have leaves growing on them. The birds are starting to come back, slowly but surely. Sherry is a clinical psychologist. She’s been great helping the kids through some challenges after the fire. Basically, rebuilding the house is our project and it’s been a team effort for both of us; she has her strengths and I have mine, then we collaborate over morning coffee. That part of it has worked really well for us.

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

Staying within the budget. It’s so easy not to. You look at something and it’s only two dollars more—say, flooring—but that’s the stuff that will blow you up. We are seriously looking at what we need to do, to make our house as fireproof as possible, which includes how we do our landscaping, and sprinkler setup. My wife is nervous about living up here now. I think there are a lot of people feeling that way. Not to put blame anywhere, but you can’t rely on the police and fire department to save you, living up here. 

Any suggestions or advice for others displaced by the fire?

Shop around. Get multiple bids on things. Educate yourself. I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to, and that has saved money. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone.