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Opinion | Tom Mashberg

Survivor of Malibu fires: ‘The wind doesn’t care who you are’

A wildfire burned a structure near Malibu Lake in Malibu, Calif.
A wildfire burned a structure near Malibu Lake in Malibu, Calif.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

MALIBU, Calif.

Much of the attention paid to the wildfires that blitzed through this high-profile coastal enclave has emphasized the misfortunes of the celebrities and millionaires who lost mansions and luxury cars. But like any city, Malibu has a good-sized number of working-class residents who have lived here for decades and get by on modest incomes.

One of those is Vinnie Terranova, 61, who owns a small construction business, employs a few of his neighbors, and lived in a wood-beamed home in a hilly part of town until it was obliterated on Friday when the wind-driven Woolsey Fire surged through it.


Below, Terranova describes his frightening bolt to safety and punctures the myth that Malibu, which has 13,000 residents spread over 20 square miles, is for fat cats only:

“This fire really snuck up on us. One minute it looked far away and then it just came racing down the hill. We thought we had more time and all of a sudden I looked out my back window and I see this wall of flames about a mile long coming towards us that was not there 10 minutes earlier. It was crazy fast. It was everywhere at once.

“I just threw my guitars in the truck and took off and I didn’t know if I was going to make it out. Then I realized I’d left my daughter’s cat and went back to get it. By then there were huge flames right at the end of my dirt road, and it was just terrifying driving through those flames. And there were these huge flying embers landing everywhere. [Terranova saved the cat.]

“I heard some firemen yelling, ‘Hurry up, get your ass out of here!’ I drove faster than I’ve ever down that hill. I was flying through the flames and dark smoke. The fire was really racing after us, and man I was scared. I was sick that I’d waited so long.


“There were people with horses who were just running them down toward the beach. The smoke was brutal for everyone. You live around here, you go through brushfires every couple of years, but you can deal with them. Not this time. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been here 50 years. I just knew my house was gone.

“It’s going to be a lifetime of rebuilding here, and a lot of people aren’t going to be able to do it. People are under-insured or they just can’t afford to build again.

“You know that whole thing about everybody in Malibu being rich — that’s ridiculous. I tell people I’m from Malibu and they step back and go like ‘whoah!’

“Yeah, it’s true that in the last 20 years a lot of the Beverly Hills shiny-shoes types are moving out here, but we have a lot of surfers and artists and working people.

“It’s not like Rodeo Drive, it really isn’t, though there’s a lot of people trying to make it out to be like that, which kind of stinks. The old Malibu is still alive. There’s a real mixture of people. A lot of folks here are like me. Just trying to make a living.

“It’s not like we can go right back to work. People wait months for insurance money. Hazardous waste has to be cleared up. They’ve got to fix the gas and power lines. I really don’t know what everybody’s going to do. I mean, I plan to stay here, but oh jeez, what next? Look, I have a few hundred dollars in my wallet and all my tools are gone. I know a lot of regular people and personal friends who got wiped out too.


“Yeah, sure I heard that Cher’s house burned down and a lot of other celebrities. I’ve seen them in town. They’re good people. This is the biggest fire that ever hit Malibu. It’s all this wind. The wind is our biggest enemy. The wind doesn’t care who you are.”

Tom Mashberg is a freelance writer. This interview has been condensed and edited.