All That's Left

On Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of sirens. The first thing I saw was a Super Scooper directly in front of my house, scooping tons of saltwater and heading off in the direction of Point Dume before turning inland. From my balcony, I could see a huge plume rising out of the hills above Pepperdine University. I couldn’t ride my bike into the middle of the action, as I did during last month’s fires, so I watched it unfold on TV. News reports eventually pinpointed the fire’s origins to the top of Corral Canyon, heading toward Point Dume — a path that would lead directly through Slim’s backyard.

Slim is the nickname of a surfer friend — an unusual one. She went to Harvard and is the only surfing friend of mine who worked in the White House, writing speeches for Bush the First. She stayed in Washington after Clinton beat Bush for “a series of disasters,” one of which included serving as communications director for a congressional candidate who came out of the closet. She then took on a similar role for a corporate shyster who ended up getting 10 years on a federal bit.

Those disasters drove her west to Malibu several years ago. She took a corporate job for a nutrition institute in the Valley and started surfing. When the younger Bush’s administration came a calling, she declined, thus avoiding involvement in yet another D.C. disaster. Slim is a Republican/Libertarian and I am not, but you have to dig anyone who blows off a White House job because she wants to surf First Point.

She was flying into Burbank from San Francisco, unaware that Malibu was burning again, at the same time I was watching planes scoop water in front of my house. My cell-phone message was her first alert that something was up. Driving from Burbank on the 101 freeway toward Malibu Canyon Road, Slim told me the smoke rising from the hills “looked like an atom bomb.” Slim had a sick feeling her house was at ground zero.

I had surfed with Slim a few times before she invited me up to her place on Corral Canyon Road. First time there, I understood why she didn’t go back to Washington. Here was sublime peace and quiet in a house along a road overlooking a canyon that is so steep you could step off the edge strapped to a hang glider and just keep going. On a clear day you can see Carson, and Catalina, and freighters inching along like giant centipedes.

I thought of everything in her house, including the things I had given her: A potholder with colored parrots from the airport in Panama City, a 2006 Pipeline Masters poster signed by Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, a signed copy of my latest book as a birthday present. She had recently bought a brand-new barbecue. There was the faux Warhol poster of her hero, Ayn Rand, her beloved surfboards and wetsuits in the garage, the picture of her on the set with Bill Maher.

The fire was the best thing on TV — minute-by-minute drama. I knew Corral Canyon Road well and so knew many of the houses and neighborhoods I could see on TV going up in flames. Slim and her Brazilian fiancé, Raffa, spent a nervous couple of hours in my living room glued to the TV, switching through channels, watching all the Google Earth maps and aerial photos, looking for some clue about what was happening to her house. She kept asking me what I thought.

What I thought was, “Shit happens, but sometimes it’s good shit.” What I said was, “Cross your fingers. Fires are funny.” However, I also knew her three-story house was very high, surrounded by trees and was directly in the path of the fire.

I had the surreal experience of watching the Super Scoopers and DC-10 hard at work outside my window, then watching them disappear, only to see them re-emerge on the TV screen. It was exciting and it was agonizing. After several hours of switching through all the channels, we still couldn’t tell what happened to Slim’s house.

Finally, Slim and Raffa couldn’t take it anymore and left for his one-bedroom apartment. I went surfing — almost a month after the last fires, during which I scored perfect waves at an eerily vacant First Point. The surf wasn’t so good this time, but the water was cold, the sun was hot, and the contrast kept me out there for a while watching the Super Scoopers working it and the DC-10 flying low and slow, led by a smaller plane.

When I came in, I told Slim to call Station 71 at Zumirez and see if they knew what was up. Nothing. Around 5 p.m., a newscast had a reporter on Slim’s street, standing in front of a destroyed house — a big, white house untouched in the background. Slim called me and said hers was three up from that one, but I couldn’t see it on TV.

Around 6:30 p.m., Slim called again. The city of Malibu had listed her house as one of 50 houses “destroyed.” The following evening, she got a tip on how to make it around the roadblocks. When Slim got to where her house had been, it was all gone. Standing there instead was Governor Schwarzenegger. The two knew each other a little. Slim got a hug from Schwarzenegger and a little face time on TV. She held up the license plate to her fiancé’s truck — which had burned to the consistency of paper — and told Schwarzenegger, “This is all that’s left.”

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