The Woolsey Fire swept through LA and Ventura County three years ago, and no two streets are the same when you weave through neighborhoods in the burn scar. Some homes are untouched, some are partially built. Some lots are completely empty, or have an RV parked on a flat patch of dirt while homeowners wait for construction to start.
“Even that afternoon of the fire, I kept saying, ‘It's not going to come across the highway, they'll stop it. It never gets this far,’” says Malibu resident and guitarist Lee Ritenour. “And my wife grabbed a couple of things and I said, ‘We'll be back tomorrow.’ Wrong.”
Ritenour is standing on what will be the second floor of his new home. For now, it’s just wooden framing. He lived on this plot of land for four decades, before his home burned down in the 2018 Woolsey Fire.
The Woolsey Fire was the most destructive fire in the Greater LA area. More than 1,600 structures were lost. And compared to other people rebuilding, construction’s moving pretty quickly on Ritenour’s house.
“We're about in the middle right now. Some houses are finished, some people are living in them. Some people haven't even started, and we’re about a year off from walking in the door,” Ritenour says.
It’s a seasonal tradition in California: Homes burn down, and then we hear stories of resilient fire victims promising to rebuild and recover. But once the smoke clears, they learn that’s a difficult process taking several years, if they choose to stay at all.
Two days after the fire, Ritenour called the architect he wanted, and unlike a lot of his neighbors, he had up-to-date insurance coverage, so paying for the entire project wasn't a problem. Then they hired public adjusters. But those are just the first steps.
“It took two years to get that sorted out, and then the plans, and how you rebuild in 300 pages of plans, and then permits and going through Malibu,” he says.
Only then could he start building. He and his wife were also among the thousands of people vying for the attention of the same contractors and permitting staff at the same time, which slows down the expedited process that Malibu promised.
Ritenour expects to turn the key on his new home in July next year. Some people aren’t so lucky.
Kat Merrick thought she’d be back home by now. She lost her home in the 2017 Thomas Fire. She says it’s still hard to talk about almost four years later.
“It was just devastating. You're in shock. And not only knowing that your house is gone, but that I would say over 100 friends lost everything as well that night.”
She sent in her building plans three years ago, and is still waiting on Ventura County to approve them. Meanwhile, she’s living out of a mobile home on her property that took more than two years to get approved. Before that, she was in an RV.
Merrick says she’ll end up paying for a lot of her house out of pocket because she, like so many others, was underinsured. That can happen if you buy a property, and you don’t update the insurance policy as the property value goes up. So if you bought a home for $500,000, and decades later it burns down and is worth $1 million, you’re still insured for a $500,000 home.
“It's been a nightmare. And I hear stories from so many others that are in the same boat ... and some have given up,” she says.
Giving up can sometimes feel like the only option for people who don’t own the property they lost. That is the difficult choice that Desiree McAleer faced after the Valley Fire in 2015 in Northern California.
“I realized that staying in the area, as much as my heart wanted to stay with the community, for my own healing I needed to move,” she says. “I tell people: It's like an abusive situation. So if you're in an abusive relationship, you leave that abusive relationship and you try to get into a new one.”
The Valley Fire moved so fast, McAleer never got an evacuation notice. Her neighbor didn’t get out in time and died. Her employer owned the home and the property insurance gave her a few thousand dollars for everything she lost inside it. She jumped from couch to couch for a year before she moved to Southern California.
Dave McLaughlin has seen fire victims leave his neighborhood too. He lives in Malibou Lake, where he’s a real estate agent. It’s tough to find a home there that goes for less than $1 million.
The Woolsey Fire burned down his garage, and the insurance didn’t come close to covering it. But sitting on his porch that did survive, he says of the roughly 200 homes around Malibou Lake, 55 burned in the fire.
“I don't think one has been fully rebuilt yet. I think there's — I'm looking around the lake right now — probably seven underway. Seven of those 55,” he says.
On some of the burned out lots, the evidence of tragedy is sobering. There’s rubble of one home, but the chimney is still fully intact. On another, only the stone foundation remains. There’s a concrete slab where two small hands and a pair of initials made their mark eight years ago.
He says it was tough selling a home right after the fire because the insurance was so expensive, and there wasn’t much interest living in a burn scar. But there’s been renewed interest in remote areas like Malibou Lake, even as home insurance rates in fire-prone areas have increased, since people can work from home and live farther from urban centers.
For homeowners like Kat Merrick, it’s worth the rebuild.
“You can see the ocean, and also then turn the other direction, and you're looking at the Topatopas in the evening as the sun sets,” she says. “And as we've been told by friends that are in the real estate business, you'll never find a property like that again in Ventura County. You just won't. “
Ritenour has lived in this same spot since 1979. He calls himself an old-timer in his neighborhood and wears it like a badge of honor. He says fire is just a part of life here.
“I don't know, the earthquake happens, the tsunami comes, take your choice. I've been in LA my whole life, so I understand that. I roll with it. And I'll take my chances.”
KCRW reporter Caleigh Wells is covering what’s expected to be a very active wildfire season. Do you have any questions for her? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at her @cgrey307.