Subjective, Objective Views On The Burning Of The 'Bu

Posted by Robin Hill on

Through various forms of wrangling, family favours and taking full advantage of maternity leave laws, The Golden Rays were able to spend two weeks of both October 2016 and October 2017 in Malibu, the stretch of coast where the Los Angeles sprawl peters out into the Santa Monica Mountains. We spent our days surfing Topanga, braving the braggadocio crowds of First Point, eating lunch with the bikers at Neptune's Net and loitering around Malibu Country Mart in the hopes of Seinfeld sightings.

Alena at Zuma BeachSanta Monica MountainsThe Golden Rays at First Point
[The Golden Rays in Malibu; Zuma, Topanga & an uncharacteristically flat First Point]

From our AirBNB perch up in the hills of Topanga Canyon we wondered if a more perfect setup existed... consistently mellow fun waves, endless mountainous wilderness, easy access (if you don't mind a little traffic) to a bustling varied culture rich metropolis and all the fish tacos you could hope to eat. We live in London and are heavily dependent on the city despite being fully addicted to sliding on waves and spending time lounging in the mountains. Malibu felt like the impossible dream made real. Every box ticked. And that's before even considering the weather.

At the end of our second trip, in October 2017, we drove north to spend an obligatory few nights camping in Yosemite National Park. A must-do for any outdoors enthusiast. A Disneyland for nature fanatics. That October, northern California had witnessed what were, at that point, the deadliest wildfires to ever hit the area. As we drove east from San Francisco we were slowly engulfed in smoke. A thin foggy layer drifting high in the sky was the backdrop for our time in Yosemite. And despite the news reports of devastation and death further north, the atmospheric haze was bizarrely beautiful, surreal and tranquil, lending entire days the air of early morning mist.

Yosemite Wildfire Smoke

Wildfires are a staple of California's autumn. Long hot summers leave the state's expanse of forested wilderness completely dry, perfect kindling. Historically lightning is to blame for sparking the fires, then driven from California's interior out towards the coast by the prevailing Santa Ana winds. Usually a Pacific storm signals the beginning of winter and its rains deaden the flames.

However the increase in population has boosted the regularity of the fires, often as simple as a cigarette flicked from a car. Then climate change has increased their intensity; longer hotter summers and less rain to quench the dry forests. Finally an increase in the number of human inhabitants in areas prone to wildfires has made their potential for devastation all the more devastating.

In the October of 2018, we couldn't work out how to get back to Malibu. From our home in Finsbury Park we dreamed of glistening Pacific waves and sparse rocky hills. Then in early November, news started to filter through of a fire that had reached such massive proportions it was spreading across Ventura and LA County, headed straight for Malibu. It was so hard to imagine this haven being ravaged by apocalyptic inferno.

Malibu Flames from la.curbed.com Getty[The Woolsey Fire looking south from Ventura from la.curbed.com]

In the wake of what became known as the Woolsey Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Malibu, an article by surf journalist Jamie Brisick appeared in The New Yorker. A first hand account of the events surrounding his home, and all his possessions with it, being destroyed. Brisick's article is completely devoid of self pity. Whilst his writing is personal and reflective, the article is as much focussed on the actions of the Malibu community and who stuck around to hold the fort when the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Read "A Surfer's Perspective on Malibu in Flames" on The New Yorker's site

Like a fair few of surfing's best writers, Brisick began his journey as a Malibu grom on the pro-surfing circuit. Dropping out in the nineties, he eventually landed a gig as the editor of the now defunct Surfer Magazine. A long and varied career in writing followed. The Surfer's Journal, The New York Times and The Guardian were amongst the many places where he honed his inimitable style.

But back to the burning of the 'Bu. Seeing news footage of the Woolsey Fire and reading accounts like Brisick's was so at odds with our memories of that little corner wedged between LA and Ventura Counties, where the Santa Monica mountains slope into the Pacific. It was like seeing paradise engulfed by armageddon. A surreal set of images. Impossible to imagine that such a thing might be real. Yet Jamie Brisick's article in particular, so objectively written from right in the thick of it, made it very real.

Appendix i:

Jamie has also recorded two interviews for Matt Barr's Looking Sideways Podcast, which is always really interesting listening. The most of recent of which is specifically about the Malibu life and especially insightful.

Standing Sideways 086: Jamie Brisick - After the Fire

Standing Sideways 011: Jamie Brisick - Chronicling the Margins

When we heard that Birdwell Beach Britches had compiled a book of short stories by Jamie Brisick we knew we had to get hold of a few copies. It is exactly what we're aiming for with The Golden Rays. Surfing attracts a whole treasure trove of intriguing characters and many excel in some creative endeavour once they're out of the water. Whether through writing, photography, art or some other fine craft, we want to champion these exceptional surfing voices. And Brisick is the perfect example. His book "Dazzling Blue", published by Birdwell, is a brilliant body of work, made up of 58 very short essays loosely "about things we do in board shorts". What transpires is an engaging and clever take on the surfing autobiography.

Get your copy of Jamie Brisick's Dazzling Blue from The Golden Rays now!

Appendix ii:

Malibu locals Jamie and Trace Marshall waxed lyrical on the hallowed and crucial place Malibu holds in the past, present and future of surf culture in Huck Magazine's recent podcast episode:

Joining The Dots with Jamie Brisick & Trace Marshall


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  • Beautiful story of a great tragedy. More please.

    Pooka on

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