Malibu Strong — One Mom’s Diary of Resilience, Grit, and Garden Hoses. What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger.
by Pamela Conley Ulich, Mother, Former Mayor of Malibu, Reluctant Fire Fighter
It’s been 6 months since the beastly Woolsey Fire came to Malibu and exactly 3 months since my dear father-in-law Opi passed away. The following is Part 1 of my Malibu Fire aka Woolsey Fire story.
I’m sorry. There is no other way to begin this story. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
My story is nothing compared to the stories of our sister California city — Paradise. My heart aches for those beautiful Paradise souls who lost their lives in Northern California.
My story also pales in comparison to the stories of many other Malibu local heroes who risked their lives to battle fire tornadoes in order to save homes and to those friends and neighbors who lost their lives and homes during this tragic fire.
I still feel guilty that many of my friends lost everything and every day is a battle for them. Many are still digging through the proverbial dirt — waiting for debris removal clearances, waiting for permits to rebuild, waiting for insurance claims to be resolved, waiting for law suits to be filed. My heart aches for them each and every day. They are the real heroes who practice grit and resilience on a daily basis.
I still feel guilty that I made Opi evacuate. Dr. Konrad Ulich, otherwise known as Opi, my dear father-in-law, lived next door to us in Point Dume and who, at 94, argued with me, but eventually agreed to evacuate on November 9, 2018 against his will. He passed away on February 21, 2019. He did not want to evacuate and pleaded with us to let him stay behind. I thought evacuation was the “right thing to do” and urged all to listen to those orders. I wish I knew then, what I know now. We are literally within 1 mile of Zuma beach and the ocean. As far as I know, no fire has been able to burn on sand and in the ocean.
We’ll never know if his death was a direct result of the horrible Woolsey fire, but in my bones I believe that beastly fire was the beginning of the end for him and that he might still be with us today, but for that fire. Opi was unable to get back to his home for many, many, many days because of those damn evacuation orders. As a result, after 10 or so days in an unfamiliar place and being away from his home which suffered damage, he began to get sun downers. He was understandably very anxious and beyond worried because his son and I (my husband David) were in Malibu fighting the fire without electricity and/or the ability to communicate with him directly.
I dedicate this story to Opi. I pray that he will rest in peace and know that he lives on in our hearts and soul. I hope we can all learn from the mistakes we made and be better prepared for the next crisis which if the climate change scientists are correct, could be right around the corner (e.g. floods, more fires, more Santa Ana’s and severe weather conditions).
Rather than live in regret, I will push forward to live a Malibu Way of Life that honors nature and our foremothers and forefathers who battled before me and live in a way that is resilient and filled with grit. Every day, I see signs of hope like the new yellow flowers, but I also see the scars on the land like the trees burnt beyond hope. This juxtaposition of the new blooms and the wretched remains remind me to savor every second and to simply be in awe because we have one more day to reflect, to learn and to get prepared for next time.
Tonight, I attended an extraordinary Red Ladder Gallery event where local artist Eamon Harrington was doing a nice Q and A Session with the Publishers of the Malibu Times, Karen and Arnold York. As I listened to Arnold and Karen’s stories about the devastating 1993 Malibu fire, I thought to myself, that kind of fire surely won’t happen again in our town again.
Things were different now. I was the acting Mayor during the 2007 fire. I was able to witness LA County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman and Supervisor Yaralslovsky in action. That 2007 fire was suppose to burn all the way to Yerba Buena, but the valiant fire fighters beat back the beast and most of Malibu was not harmed. Even Governor Schwarzenegger and Cal Fire were in Malibu immediately standing strong with us and vowing to do all they could to protect our community. I felt confident that our fire department would and could protect Malibu.
I woke up still reeling from the news about the Border Grill terrorist gun massacre on Wednesday night. I was still in a state of grief for those beautiful people whose lives had been stolen away by an ex-marine who had served our country. Nothing made sense anymore.
Later in that afternoon on the Boeing property near the Santa Susan Field lab a fire broke out. I didn’t pay that much attention to this fire at first, but later in the day, Melissa Bumstead, a wonderful mother posted on her Facebook page:
“This fire is my worst fear realized. Read below how you can protect your family from the potential of radioactive ash. Please share!!!
Thousands of gallons of carcinogenic TCE were dumped on these Rocket Stands (I’m the photo) from Areas 1 & 2 of the Santa Susana Field Lab. The area is contaminated with radioactive waste, but not as severely as Area 4 which could catch on fire soon. Plutonium, Uranium, Cesium, Strontium. On site, buried only a few feet underground with radiation that would give 9 out of 10 people cancer if they lived there.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) told us repeatedly that we couldn’t be harmed by the radioactive and chemical contamination on the site because it couldn’t reach us, though we have proof that is has for years from ground water, rain runoff and wind.
Contaminated ash will can now reach us and communities hundreds of miles away. DTSC’s head official, Linda Parks, was with the fire chief during the press statement tonight…and gave no warning at all that the site was radioactive and that we could be in danger. And I highly doubt those firefighters have any idea what they’re being exposed to.
The worst of it…is that none of this should have happened. The DTSC promises residents the cleanup would be done by 2107 but they’ve done nothing except allow the polluters to leave the waste here to be burned. I bet The Boeing Company is dancing, this is more cost effective to them than any of their other tactics. And now the cleanup won’t happen until 2034.
I spoke at length with the Los Angeles Air Quality Control tonight and they’re not going to do anything past a smoke advisory though they’re very well aware of the bigger dangers, they’ve known about the site for years.
I told them about my daughter’s cancer and the 50 other local kids with cancer and that people living within 2 miles of the site have a 60% higher cancer incident rate, and that our community has a 10–20% higher invasive breast cancer rate compared to the rest of California.
But they’re not going to issue a statement letting people know how dangerous this smoke is. The DTSC isn’t going to protect us, they threw us under the bus years ago. The CalEPA has ties to DTSC and won’t protect us, not until Gov. Newsom takes office to reform it.
So here’s what we do:
1. Keep windows closed and limit time outdoors for the next few days.
2. Call your children’s school and ask for the children to be kept indoors during recess tomorrow.
3. Don’t wear your shoes inside so you don’t track contamination in.
4. Have everyone in the family wash hands so if they are exposed, it’s not ingested.
5. Call the DTSC, call CalEPA, call your elected officials and demand the 100% cleanup now.
We can’t wait until 2034 to be safe. They let this into our community and homes. It’s time we do something to change that. PLEASE SHARE SO WE CAN PROTECT ALL OUR FAMILIES.”
Melissa’s post made me think twice and I that post on my FB page, tagged Henry Stern and Katie Hill and stated: “Please see the post below. Is this true? Is there radioactive waste in air because of this fire?”
I went to bed nervous and prayed the winds would die and that the fire department would knock out this potentially radioactive fire before it could spread and hurt innocent people.
A beastly day.
6:30 a.m. I woke up with an uneasy feeling. I had no idea what the day would bring, but the Santa Ana Winds, otherwise known as “Devil Winds” were blowing strong. I had an eerie feeling that today I would come face to face with the Devil. I knew I couldn’t let my fears and my worries, or my delusions that we would be ok because we lived in Point Dume and it never burns in Point Dume, lull me into a vegetative “it’ll be ok” state of mind. I vowed to remain vigilant and to continue to get ready for whatever would come next.
I was looking forward to going to my 8 a.m work out with my tribe of kick you know what Moms that morning, but God had other plans. I put the work out grind on hold. Little did I know, a different kind of five day non-stop work out was just going to begin.
I posted on Facebook to get ready with your go bags, then I went outside to do my work out for the day. I had to get my home ready for the approaching beast.
I went on the roof and began to cut away any and all branches that were near our home. I knew that if the trees caught on fire, then the branches touching our home would be like wicks in a candle and our home could go next. I enlisted my son Konrad to also help and after an hour, I went on to the next task.
I was able to hook up all our hoses and get them ready to deploy around our home and on our roof. I knew that water pressure might not work, so with the help of my husband David and my son Konrad, we proceeded to strategically place trash and other big bins filled with water and old towels around our home and on the roof. (Thank God we have a flat roof!)
I was able to convince Opi, who lives next door to us, to evacuate with my son Konrad around 10:20 a.m. They wanted to stay, but I worried about the air quality, especially because this fire had begun in the Santa Susanna Field lab, a defunct nuclear testing facility near Moorpark. I wanted to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. Opi did not want to go. He only went because my son convinced him they would be back in no time. I snapped a picture of them leaving with the beast in front of them.
Opi and Konrad came back at around 11 a.m. after having gone only from PCH and Portshead to PCH and Zumirez which is less than one half a mile. I explained that they had to leave, and they reluctantly got back on the evacuation path. I explained that we would try to finish preparations and meet up with them later at either the Ralph’s parking lot, which was South of the fire, or at my brother’s home in West Hollywood if the beast continued to grow and spread to the south.
Those Devil winds were tempting me to stop my busy work and those last-minute preparations to simply watch the hundred foot white and grey plumes of smoke billow against a perfect deep blue sky and sunshiny day.
11:10 a.m. While I was on the roof geting ready, I noticed a big jet above the hills on Kanan dropping some type of pink substance onto the hills.
See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bdhohtz58k&list=PLRGXfWPGSWVZGClq4H495LVu7BpCi6Jj0The One Plane Drop I Witnessed on Hills Above Kanan 11/9/18
I texted Katarina at college and asked her what she wanted me to take with us from her room and she said, “All I want is my old Teddy Bear.”
11:35 a.m. I watched as the fire began to roar down the hills just down from Fire Station 71 on PCH and Zumirez.
12:05 p.m. I stood with my husband David and my dog Marzi on the corner and watched in disbelief as the fire began to come within 100 feet or so of PCH and Zumirez. I wanted to make plans to evacuate to the beach if it came much closer and ran over to Station 71. It was locked and no one was there. Traffic on PCH was at a stand still.
2:21 p.m. David and I put on our masks as the air became black and thick. I gave some masks to other neighbors who had none and we began to debate whether we should stay or go.
2:30 p.m. Sheriff cars came to the corner of Zumirez and PCH and yelled at us over their loud speakers “Evacuate. Evacuate now. The Fire has jumped PCH at Konrad. Get out now.” David and I both wanted to stay, but we were also worried about our Saint Bernard who was also with us. Just then I received another text from my daughter who was in college. She was upset and just said, “Please leave now. She didn’t want us to die in the fire. We reluctantly decided to leave and put our fate in the hands of God and to get on PCH towards Santa Monica to join my son and Opi at a safe house in West Hollywood. By the time we left, PCH was empty.
4 p.m My daughter Katarina called me again while I was driving to join Konrad and Opi. She was beyond grateful that we had evacuated and asked, “Did you remember to take Teddy.” I felt horrible. In my rush to leave I had left Teddy behind. I felt terrible. I stopped the car. Got out and took one last look back at Point Dume and Teddy. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I was still in a state of shock. Where were the firefighters? I would have to let go let God.
6:00 p.m. We tried to have a nice meal together, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that my home town was burning. Everyone at the restaurant was happy and just eating without a care in the world. I still had my yellow fire jacket on and felt like I was in a time warp. My son showed me video footage of his friend on Wandermere and his entire back yard was engulfed in flames. The pain in my stomach grew and I feared that all of Point Dume would be gone with the Santa Ana winds.
I couldn’t sleep. I sat in bed saying my rosary. A little voice inside of me told me to get up and go back home. I put the rosary around my neck and told David we must go back in. He looked at me and said, “But what about the road blocks?” I replied, we have to try. We needed to at least try to get Kat’s teddy bear, plus I founded and volunteered to to lead the Point Dume Neighborhood Watch. It’s my duty to try to help. I had heard from my dear friend Lydia that her husband had stayed behind to help, and I also felt obliged to help him and others that had stayed behind to fight the beast. Operation Save Teddy and Help Point Dume was a go.
We began the long trek back into Malibu and back into the fire.