The Surfers Who Fought the Woolsey Fire

As the Woolsey Fire engulfed Malibu’s Point Dume, a group of surfers bravely stood their ground to defend their beloved community

Words by ANDREW BARKER
Photography by JACK PLATNER

 

You’d think a 7 a.m. mandatory evacuation message would evoke a singular response: Grab your family and get the hell out. But for a group of lifelong residents of Point Dume, it had the opposite effect. Last year, as the town was enveloped by a thick fog of smoke on Friday, Nov. 9, they chose to stay behind.

In Malibu, fires are nothing new. Nor is the concept of people staying behind to protect their property. But the Woolsey Fire was reportedly the first to jump the Pacific Coast Highway in more than 20 years, presenting a whole new threat to the beachside communities of Point Dume and neighboring Paradise Cove.

Childhood friends Sam McGee and Bo Bigelow were two of those who stayed. With shovels, they started putting out spot fires as best they could, protecting the homes of friends and family. Despite low water pressure, and in many cases no water at all, they fought the flames with garden hoses, dodging the flying embers as eucalyptus trees burned. They needed support.

Via an iMessage chat group among their surfer friends, the Point Dume Bomberos amassed 15 people in just a few hours. (The group’s name derives from the surf term “bomber,” used by Point Dume’s first surf team in the early ’60s to refer to someone dropping into a big wave.) As houses started to collapse they soldiered on, collecting volunteers as they went. “We were just told [by the local firefighters] to wear 100 percent cotton because polyester will melt to your skin,” McGee says.

“All of these guys had the instinct to help and to fight”

There was a community to protect. With PCH gridlocked, there were close to 200 people on the beach, fearing for their lives, their homes, their friends and their animals. Making things worse: the unreliable cell coverage. From their front-row seat, the only certainty was that the fire wasn’t stopping anytime soon.

“The thing that surprised me was all of these guys had the instinct to help and to fight and to be combative about the situation, rather than passive,” says Robert Spangle, who evacuated on Friday with a friend and neighbor to Santa Monica. Watching the news on TV, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of powerlessness that compelled him to drive back with some camping equipment.

Having done two tours in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps, Spangle met the group and suggested he spot for them. He chose a vantage point on Big Dume, Malibu’s farthest-west location, which was a lookout during World War II for identifying Japanese submarines. Supplied with only his binoculars, a sleeping bag and a pair of ski goggles, he spotted fires and communicated with the team using a children’s walkie-talkie. Most importantly, he had a couple signal bars and could send out supply orders with the hope that someone might make it back on road or by water. “It would go from you seeing this wall of smoke to you being inside of it, not really being able to see anything,” he says.

By Sunday, supplies, including generators, radios, gas masks, gasoline, food, water and medication, began to arrive by boats leaving Marina del Rey. But with no place to dock, they had to improvise the landings with surfboards. At one point a 15-foot-long inflatable unicorn was used as transport.

“I spent a lot of time [in the Marine Corps] working with small craft and landing on beaches,” Spangle says. “To unload noncommercial vehicles onto longboards is not only physically trying, it’s extremely dangerous. But it needed to be done.” By now the group had grown to nearly 30. The relief center had moved to the Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School, and the supplies went there to be sorted.

Word had reached two New York-based Bomberos, who flew in that weekend to volunteer. One of them, Jackson Winner, hitched a ride on a fishing boat heading to Ventura and swam his way in. With the help of some “creative, dynamic thinkers we were able to form 25 young guys into an incredibly effective, basically, like, purpose-built emergency service brigade,” Spangle says.

On Wednesday morning, after five nights with next to no sleep, the Bomberos went surfing. With the ground smoldering but the fire under control, they knew Point Dume was far from saved. Power didn’t return for 10 days. In some parts of Malibu, it took two months. The cleanup is ongoing, and insurance claims are still being processed — that is, in situations where there is insurance.

“It’s extremely dangerous. But it needed to be done”

Three lives and more than 1,500 homes were lost in the Woolsey Fire. The Bomberos believe many of those could have been saved with better community organization and the right supplies. With the help of Malibu City Council, they are looking to receive fire training from professionals. The fund they launched has already raised more than $200,000, of which the lion’s share has gone to providing shelters for the displaced. Their ambition is to create an emergency supply bank with radios, generators, boots and clothing to better position the community for next time. Because, sadly, there will be a next time.

Donations may be made at gofundme.com/fundraiser-for-point-dume-bomberos.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 Men’s Edition of C magazine.

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