I can’t tell you how it started, or even where or when. I will not be the most informed person that you will find regarding the fire currently invading the city of Malibu. I can tell you, though, what it felt like trying to get out of there Friday morning, and what it looked like.
A little over three years ago, I moved into a van and started driving around the country for a project I was calling Connected States. On Thursday night, I was parked at friend’s property in southern Malibu, about a mile up a canyon. I woke up at 8am Friday morning for a physical therapy appointment 5 miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway (aka the PCH). I realized that I didn’t have any reception, but that isn’t totally unusual for the area. The winds had been extreme all night, and I figured a tree had taken out some power-lines.
When I got down to the PCH at about 8:20am, I saw that traffic was bumper-to-bumper heading south. It’s LA, so traffic is par for the course, but this was much worse than usual. I figured a tree must have fallen on the highway, too. I started heading north, and finally my phone got back online, and I saw a text from my mom saying, “Please tell me that you have evacuated to somewhere safe!!” That’s when I realized that something was very wrong, and it was a whole lot worse than a downed power-line.
I called my mom back, and that’s when I heard about the fire. Suddenly, everything made sense. I promised her I’d get out as quickly as possible. I was kicking myself, though. I’d just driven five miles toward what now appeared to be a giant mushroom cloud forming over the hills, and traffic heading south was basically stopped. I had probably added three to four hours to my evacuation. I checked Google Maps, and all of the canyon roads heading east looked to be at a standstill, or blocked off by police. I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck in one of those with flames approaching.
North still looked relatively clear, though. And if I made it as far as Oxnard (northwest of the fire) I figured from there I could cut east to highway 5 and get back to LA.
So that’s what I did.
It was a questionable choice. Traffic was moving more or less freely because everybody was headed in the opposite direction. Seeing that gave me a sinking feeling. Was I doing something very stupid? I pulled over and talked to a cop, though, and he told me that the PCH was basically clear to Ventura. Despite it being the direction of the fire, he thought it was a better idea than sitting in the traffic and waiting for the fire to close in, so I went for it.
As I got closer to the largest cloud of smoke I’ve ever seen—and I was in Sonoma when the Wine Country fires broke out last year—I started seeing massive flames on the hills. The winds were still blowing hard from the east, so those flames and smoke were all heading toward the ocean, and to those of us on the PCH. My eyes, nose, and throat were all burning by this point.
On the radio I heard the anchor tell people with horses and livestock to head to the parking lot at Zuma State Beach, just as I was driving by it. Sure enough, there were horses being led across the road. Eventually, the smoke got so bad that I poured water onto a t-shirt and used it as a mask. I wish I’d thought of it sooner, as a nasty headache was already setting in.
By the time I reached Ventura County around 10:30am, the smoke had gotten much worse. It effectively looked like the sun had set. Everybody’s headlights were on, and white ash rained down from the sky. It would have been beautiful if it wasn’t a harbinger of devastation. I didn’t have reception for most of the drive, so I was eager to let my family know I was okay.
I managed to get in touch with a friend back in LA shortly after I crossed the county line, and he told me his friends in Malibu Lake had almost certainly lost their house late Thursday night. Another friend of mine is from Paradise, CA. Both of her parents lost their homes as the blaze tore through the city Thursday night. Luckily, they got out in time.
Eventually, I made it all the way to Oxnard, which is where I am now, writing this from a café, and trying to figure out where to go next. Oxnard isn’t in immediate danger from the fire, but the air quality is awful. Having made it all the way here, heading back to LA isn’t a particularly appealing prospect.
For all of the times when the whole #vanlife thing is a pain, I have to say I’ve never been more grateful for it than I am right now. I didn’t have to scramble to gather important documents or photos, or make any tough decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. I just stuck the key in the ignition and went. So many others weren’t so lucky, and my heart goes out to all of them. I’m hoping that sweet little canyon in Malibu, with my friend’s family home, will still be there when the smoke clears, but ultimately I’m thankful that I got away unscathed.
Brent Rose is a freelance writer and longtime Gizmodo contributor. He is currently traveling the U.S. living in a high tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com