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Surviving Woolsey

“Oh no.” My friend, Jennifer crinkled her small freckled nose.

We are flying down the 405 together, headed home after carpooling to a soothing yoga class. Traffic is flowing and it’s a beautiful California afternoon, in spite of the sun’s early fade due to daylight savings time. It’s 4:30 and the gold and orange hue of sunset is sweeping the landscape of the San Fernando Valley.


“There’s a fire at Rocketdyne.”

“Where’s Rocketdyne?”

“Right by my Mom’s house.”

This is a loaded answer. Jennifer’s Mom had recently passed away. The grief and struggle of saying goodbye was overwhelming. Just a few moments earlier, she had sweetly described her Mom’s house in great detail: a hidden mecca surrounded by a canvas of ancient oaks and wildlife that she’s come to know and love (and feed). The house was a chamber that held sacred memories of her Mother. The fire was headed straight for Box Canyon. Jennifer stared quietly out the window.

“Don’t worry. They’ll put it out. They always do.” I felt confident that this fire would be dealt with. After all, California firefighters are the best in the world.

Maybe, in that moment, I couldn’t take anymore. My head was banging. I had a stress headache and my eye sockets were throbbing. I had made this one hour drive for yoga because I was depressed, stressed out and angry. The Borderline Bar & Grill shooting had happened the night before and my community was grief stricken. How could something like this happen here? I live in a neighborhood about 5 miles from Thousand Oaks where nobody locks their doors.

My husband, Tim, and I went to Borderline two weeks prior to the shooting and tried out a line dance class. I had two left feet! It was a fun evening and I laughed with a girlfriend as my husband snapped off bribe-worthy photographs. The environment at Borderline was sweet and wholesome with a healthy combination of young college students and middle-aged people, ordering hamburgers and beer and lining up on the dancefloor to follow the headset clad dance instructor.

As Jennifer got out of the car, I said something...well...oblivious, really.

“Think good thoughts!” Jennifer smiled sweetly and closed the door. Hindsight truly is 20/20. I revisit that moment a lot….

That evening after dinner, I received a text from the head of the Fire Awareness Group for Malibou Lakeside: Voluntary evacuation shortly if the fire is not stopped at the 101. Get ready to go.

My closest friend (my soul sister) ,Leta, called from Carmel asking if I was okay. She was tracking the news of our local fire and also the ‘Camp Fire’ up North. We discussed whether I should pack up the jewelry and consider evacuating. At that point, the fire wasn’t near the freeway. I hung up the phone and was so exhausted from stress and crying that I decided to lay down for a few hours and then check evacuation status when I woke. I went into such a heavy sleep that I woke at 3 AM when several fire SUV’s were driving through our neighborhood announcing “Mandatory Evacuation. You must leave your home.” I remember thinking how calm the man’s voice sounded. It sent chills up my spine.

Malibou Lake is situated in the Santa Monica Mountains, literally backed up against the entrance to the state park. Residing in the mountains since 2001 and raising my three boys there, I know the trails in the park like the back of my hand. The infamous “Mash Site”, where they filmed the tv show and movie is about a half a mile from my house. Needless to say, my boys ran wild through those mountains and so did I! My son acquired the honor of Eagle Scout by participating in many projects in the park and was also employed by California Park Services based at the Ronald Reagan Ranch.

Our neighborhood is eclectic. We have scientists, actors, Barbara Streisand’s career drummer is my neighbor, the band Hoobastank rehearsed many albums in the canyon behind our house. We also have an abundance of French families, including Bridget Bardot’s sister. Steve McQueen notoriously loved to cruise his bike through here and fuel up at the infamous Rock Store. The list of characters residing here are as varied as the housing styles which range from modern to log cabins. We are a scrappy, rebellious yet refined mix of movie industry professionals, horse enthusiasts and people who just want to be left the hell alone.

Malibou Lake came to exist in the early 1920’s as a hunting haven to Cecil B. Demille and his Hollywood cronies. Clark Gable built a cabin here. The original Frankenstein movie was shot on the lake and I can guarantee you that you have seen the picturesque community on various tv shows, films and numerous commercials. Paramount Ranch, the “Cowboy Town” used in Westworld, Dr. Quinn & Little House on the Prairie was also a Carhart favorite. The boys ran wild through the old western town playing ‘shoot’em up’ many times. It was a little kids’s dream come true to pretend to be a cowboy in that old town.

The truth is you have to have a love affair with the mountains to live here. It is an inconvenient drive, but is my quiet time before I hit the 101 freeway and the hustle and bustle of the city. Each day, I gaze in awe at Ladyface mountain, whose serene beauty accompanies me on my drive to Agoura. Californians, in general, are impatient with extra driving time. But this distance creates a buffer from the rush of the rest of the world. After crossing Mulholland Highway and casting your eyes upon the first view of the lake, the world beneath you shifts to a more simple time. Vintage white bridges, swings hung for the children, a clubhouse straight out of the movie “Dirty Dancing”, Rabbit Island with it’s swinging rope, quaint cottages and and white fencing. It is a comforting sight.

When I woke for the evacuation, I hyper-focused. We packed up quietly. Tim grabbed the legal file with our family’s birth certificates and passports while I packed silver, china and baby photographs. He grabbed his vintage guitars and Turkish rugs as I pulled my Mother’s wedding dress from the basement. I grabbed our one expensive painting from the wall. It was just the two of us because all three of the boys were safe distances away from the area.

We hunkered down in a hotel in Santa Monica and watched Malibou Lake burn on tv. Then the texts started coming in at a steady rate.

“My house has been burnt to the ground.”

“Are you sure? Maybe it’s bad information.” I naively texted back.

The response was a horrifying picture of a pile of smoldering rubble. This went on for two hours as I received text after horrifying text from my dear neighbors who lost their homes. I heard that 34 homes had burned in our neighborhood. I was beginning to accept that mine was probably gone, too, when I received word that a person who lived on our street had stayed and saved our homes. Then, the text came.

“Circle Drive is still standing!”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. We had survived.

Our house was still standing, but we were told there was a fire on the hillside behind it and no fire trucks in the area. We snuck in to protect our home. There was a fire behind our house! Tim put it out with a shovel. This was the beginning of three creepy weeks of no electricity, sitting in the dark with the threat of looters. The food in our refrigerator went bad. If we left our house to get ice, the sheriff would not allow us back in. The Malibou Lakers are crafty and started a contraband that consisted of people shuttling food and ice in by timing a handoff at the sheriff’s checkpoint . A ‘shuttle’ was created to get people in and out for medicine or to get kids to school. It was a mind game that went on for weeks as the rest of the Conejo Valley went back to normal. I will not forget this anytime soon. Especially the black nights.

I’m writing this story because this hell fire changed my life. I believe it changed all of our lives. I value everything so much more than I used to. I guess I might have taken things for granted a little bit. I just assumed life would remain the same and Malibou Lake would stay the blissful little slice of heaven that it was. This moment in time was a valuable lesson for me to take stock of what is important, which is the people of my community. It’s time for me to step forward and support them in whatever way they may need. The Woolsey Fire hit not only homes, but businesses, including mine! I recently visited the Whizin’s Center, who allowed several ‘fire refugees’ to hover in their parking lot for days on end; including horses! My friend, Gina Marcione, the owner of the Blue Table at Whizin’s lost her historical home in the fires; but somehow managed to get a platter of food to us while we were sitting in the dark! Her house was a pile of ashes, but she was considering other people right in the middle of her own disaster. These things matter. Go into see Gina at the Blue Table sometime! She’s always there with a smile on her face.

xoxo Lori Carhart

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