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 firstname.lastname@example.org or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at email@example.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.
Lupe Witt was so certain she was returning to her Malibu home while evacuating that all she grabbed was a pair of gold evening shoes and a matching clutch purse for a black tie event she was attending that night in town with her husband, Neil, a third generation avocado farmer. They awoke early next day in their hotel room to the news that her beloved family home was gone. Lupe, a kind, soft-spoken grandmother of two, with tumbling chestnut curls, says her faith is key in the rebuild.
What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.
Neil and I have been married for 32 years and we had moved into our home on Cuthbert when our eldest daughter, Chelsea, was nine months old. We were there for 31 years we raised out three daughters there (Chelsea, 31, Blaire, 28, and Allise, 22). It was so comfy and had everything we needed. We had many celebrations there. I always felt, “How lucky am I to have this house? My kids grew up here and now my grandchildren can.” I am sad that has gone. (Crying) I miss the beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We always took the time to watch the sunset.
What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?
Coming home, I find my husband laying out the fire hose in the back yard, getting very agitated. We have been through so many fires. I thought we all needed to calm down and I went to sleep. In the morning, I called a friend and she was in the car park at Ralphs, evacuated. I offered her our house, but an hour later we were being evacuated, too. I hurried my daughter Alisse—who had just moved back from college—to get her stuff. She got into the car with the dog, but Neil and I stayed behind. He was determined he was going to stay. My girls were calling us, telling us to leave. I forgot what I said to convince him, but I did manage to. We left our house at 10 a.m. I remember walking through the house thinking I should grab more things, especially for my daughter, but I just didn’t want to be that person found with armfuls of stuff. Plus, my husband had finally said he would go, and I didn’t want to give him a chance to change his mind! I remember seeing this huge black cloud behind us when we were driving on PCH, thinking: “My God, something really horrible is happening back there!” One of my neighbors, who stayed to the very end, told me it was at 11.15 a.m. that our neighborhood was burning. I think on our street 43 houses were lost. It’s horrible. From the minute we went up there, it was like a war zone, home after home.
We had scheduled that night a black tie dinner with the in-laws. Since we had a hotel booked three months prior, we decided to go anyway. I might be the only woman in Malibu with gold shoes and a matching purse, too, which I took from the house knowing we were going there that night. I told my daughter to grab her dad’s suit. The news wasn’t saying much. All of us attended this thing and we enjoyed being with our family, but it was in the back of our minds—wondering what was happening. The next morning, first thing, my husband calls our neighbor Tammy who had stayed behind and she was being hesitant. My husband could hear her saying to her husband, “Do I tell them?”
We were both heartbroken. That was a difficult Saturday. Sunday, my husband woke up feeling so lost. His routine was to wake up, there was always a project in the yard, something to be cleaned or fertilized. I knew my church, Malibu Presbyterian, was meeting and I figured we need to connect with our second family. It was the best thing we could have done, as in our church many had burned as well. We walked out of there feeling uplifted. People were so comforting, even handing me gift cards.
What will your rebuild look like?
We have moved around six times during this experience. That got tired really fast. A friend was kind enough to let my daughter stay with her for a month. Amazingly enough, my friend Eileen Bice reached out to me on Facebook to ask how we were doing. I told her housing is a real challenge to find. Everything we were finding had stairs and my husband has a balance issues. She offered her house. Tim and Eileen have been so incredible. We are going to be here one to two years until we get our house up and running.
We are going to rebuild. My insurance is showing good faith. I was lucky my husband stayed on top of that every year. We are struggling with decisions, to opt out of the county clean up or not. There seem to be so many checks that need to be done. I don’t want to have an issue where if I go private, the city isn’t going to approve it. I never expected to have to worry about any of this—it’s a day-by-day thing.
What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?
Just the uncertainty of not being in one place. We were lucky to have people open their homes to us but you know you are there temporarily. You feel lost. Not having anywhere to put a mountain of paperwork.
Any shining moments?
This amazing group of women, my Friday Bible study group, just lifted my daughter, sending her beautiful notes, checks; they just raised funds for her. Honestly, a lot of people—her boyfriend, his family, whom we were just getting to know—opened up their hearts to us. People offering us their guesthouse when they had lost their home, too. I remember being in the Palisades having breakfast and someone just picked up the check for the whole family. All three of our daughters have been amazing getting us clothes. We joke with my husband that his closet has improved tremendously. He is a very simple man. Now he has some Vince cashmeres; that is all my daughters’ doing.
What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?
The rebuild… just because there are so many things to consider. It seems like a humungous task to take on right now. Two weeks after we burned, I remember walking into a Santa Monica hotel and we feel this heaviness and everyone is out celebrating. This terrible thing happened only two weeks ago and it feels like it’s already forgotten. I worry about that.
Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?
I want to believe that God put us through this for some reason. That something beautiful will rise from this. Something stronger. I don’t want to dwell on what was lost. I want to move forward with a new season for our lives. I would say, reach out to your neighbors, your church, because we are all experiencing this terrible thing. I know for me, going back to my women’s group and church has been very good for me.