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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, November 18, 2018 1:00 am

Random disaster, times three

Grant Denham

Last Friday morning, my wife and I woke up around 6:30 a.m., as usual – our 3-year-old son, Jakey, was up. The afternoon before, I'd seen smoke on my drive home from Santa Barbara, California, but didn't think much of it. Overnight a few friends had texted to check in, asking if we were OK. We turned on the TV to check on the fire's progress on the local news. Within an hour, a mandatory evacuation had been announced.

Our neighbor across the street told us that he and his wife were staying behind: They had a commercial fire hose, and he's a volunteer firefighter with some experience taming brush fires. If it weren't for the safety of my family, I would have been tempted to stay, too. But our house is in a little valley, surrounded by hills and mountains covered in dried grass – plenty of fuel, in other words. The fire would come down on both sides and be nearly impossible to stop. With the Santa Ana winds so strong this year, the whole neighborhood could go up.

We packed our passports, birth certificates and computers, and as many clothes and diapers for our son as would fit in our car. We also grabbed one of his toys – a firetruck, actually, that his grandmother Nina had given him as a present. We got out as fast as we could. Outside, the sky was orange and hazy. It looked as if it was snowing ash.

We got on the Pacific Coast Highway, going south to Santa Monica. The highway looked like a parking lot: total gridlock, people moving only inches at a time. We had no idea how long it would be before we got to safety at my brother- and sister-in-law's house in Beverly Hills. We sat in traffic, trying to wrap our minds around it. We thought, how could this be happening? We've already been through this twice.

Almost a year ago, in early December, we had to leave our home in Bel Air. We woke up at 4 a.m. to the sound of siren after siren blowing past our house. A fire in a natural preserve had gotten out of control. Flames were lighting up the sky. We thought of that as a disaster – looking back now, it was extremely contained.

A month later, we settled about 80 miles north in Montecito, which had just gone through the Thomas Fire. A week after we moved in to our home there was a torrential downpour, which was unusual for the area. Around 3 a.m., on Jan. 9, the mudslide started rushing down.

The flood sounded almost like the roll of thunder. Trees and boulders bigger than cars went 40 mph down the mountain. They just destroyed everything in their path.

Our street, Olive Mill Road, was like an artery for all that mud and debris sitting up on the surface of the hills. In the morning, I tried to walk outside to survey the scene. At the end of our street, I could see cars that had washed down the slope – and a couple of bodies of people who had been killed. The mud was four feet deep; the roads were blocked. First the power went out, then the water.

Luckily, we had plenty in the pantry, and working flashlights. We were trapped for four days before we could leave.

Outside, it looked like a war zone from a movie.

After we got out, we stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, and in a mix of hotels and Airbnbs. In April, we decided to buy a home in Malibu – my work was in Santa Barbara, but we wanted to leave those memories behind.

Malibu seemed like a good spot: not too long a commute and close to my wife's family. The neighborhood was quaint. We could hear the ocean waves at night from our house.

Last Friday, we had to leave that home behind. We were stuck on the road for five to six hours. At one point, we stopped to throw Jakey's diaper away in a trash can on the beach. That was when my wife opened the sunroof and took a photo of the view: the wall of smoke behind us. When we posted it on social media, the image went viral. After we got to safety, seeing this photo spread all over the Internet and the news made our experience feel even more unreal.

Earlier this week, I was able to drive back to Malibu to check out the damage. Police were stationed around the neighborhood to prevent any break-ins or looting.

As I was going down the street to our cul-de-sac, the destruction looked totally random. You'd see three burned houses in a row, and then one that looked totally fine. I was relieved to see that our home was still standing.

We don't know yet when the city will open the roads and turn back on the power. But we absolutely plan to go back to our home and stay. There's the potential for natural disasters wherever you go.

There's no utopia out there that you can go to, and be completely safe from a tornado or a flood. These disasters are random. And in Malibu, now that all of the hills are burned black, there won't be enough grass to feed a fire like this one.

I don't necessarily connect these disasters to climate change. Fires are always breaking out. Some of them are man-made. With dry conditions, they get out of control. Still, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, so many times, in such a short period, is crazy to me.

Grant Denham is a real estate developer in Malibu, California. He told his story to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen.