“911 showed up six days later”, says Gary Jones, a Woolsey Fire survivor. During a fire, you are on your own for days. So one of the biggest decisions we can make during a fire is to heed warnings immediately. On November 8, 2018, a bush fire was reported in Ventura County, California. The powerful Santa Ana winds caused this fire to accelerate and spread out. Gary ignored prior calls for evacuation, and this was one of the most regretful decisions he has made. He lost his property, three of his dogs, and nearly lost his life. In this episode, Gary relates the events of that terrifying day three years ago, and practical lessons he learned on heeding warnings as promptly as possible. Tune in as Jennifer and Gary engage you in a heart-wrenching conversation about being a fire survivor.
“Fire never has enough. It has an insatiable appetite.” -Gary Jones
- 00:36: The Woolsey Fire
- 06:08: Running Away From a Fast Raging Fire
- 11:40: Seeking for a Refuge
- 15:50: The Lenght of Recovery
- 20:47: Fire and Its Insatiable Appetite
- 23:38: Who Will Take Responsibility?
03:41: “Normally what happens is people show up after a disaster, most of the money comes in six to eight weeks. And then a lot of the attention disappears, right as the recovery begins about one year post-disaster.” -Jennifer Thompson
07:02: “I had missed all those other fires, and I thought that this is kind of like that…. And then all of a sudden, I began to smell smoke and it’s coming at me.” -Gary Jones
09:51: “911 showed up six days later. The point is you can’t count on anybody. You’re on your own. And when the man says ‘get your hat’, go get your hat.” -Gary Jones
19:39: “There’s a cost-benefit analysis and usually if a mobile home park burns down in one of these fires, it’s done and it’s gone.” -Jennifer Thompson
20:50: “Fire never has enough. It has an insatiable appetite.” -Gary Jones
Meet Gary Jones :
Gary Allison Jones lost everything in the Woolsey Fire, which ignited on November 8, 2018. The Santa Ana winds caused the fire to spread even more rapidly, razing everything on its path through Agoura Hills, where Gary lived. He ignored prior evacuation warnings, and as the fire shifted direction, Gary knew it was too late. In less than an hour, the fire reached his property. As he was trapped behind their big metal gate, Gary could only think of his wife. Fortunately, he was able to open the gates and drive away to safety. Gary is a very resilient and positive man. After all that happened, he still knows how to look at the beautiful side of things and move on as he creates new memories and acquires new things.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of After The Fire. Today, we’re going to do something a little bit different. I recently sat down with Woolsey Fire survivor Gary Jones.
Gary and Jean lost their homes in the 2018 fire that raged through Los Angeles and Ventura counties on the same day as the Campfire in Paradise. And while many of us are aware of the Campfire level of devastation, a lot of people have sort of left behind the Woolsey Fire devastation, or there’s the assumption that everybody who lost their home in the Woolsey fire was wealthy because it was located, there was a lot of damage in Malibu in particular. We want to highlight that there are actually a lot of people who needed quite a bit of services and help post disaster in the Woolsey fire as well, and many people showed up to help. Gary and his wife Jean lived on their land about 32 acres for over 35 years when the Woolsey Fire came through. And there had been many times when they had been told to evacuate because a wildfire was coming through. But as Gary will tell you, that day on November 8 was different. He didn’t heed the warning. And he’s going to talk about that. And he didn’t evacuate when he was asked to, and he’s going to recommend against his own actions at that time. It’s a very harrowing story, and it’s an important story. And it’s also one about how do you rebuild if you’re on the California Fair Plan.
For those of you that are unfamiliar, and Gary, we’ll talk about this, the California Fair Plan is the insurance of last resort. And it’s for people who live in areas where there’s no other way that they can be insured. But if you have a mortgage, you do have to be insured. So they were covered under the California Fair Plan when the cap was at $1.5 million. Today, it’s $3 million. So $1.5 million may sound like a lot of money. But if you live in a very high value area, it’s actually probably almost enough to rebuild. I know I can hear it from here. Like we’re looking at people who are trying to rebuild for 100 to $400,000 in other rural areas, but our constituency in After The Fire is all fire victims. And that would include Gary and his wife, Jean. Gary’s wife, Jean, are you’re no normal average, very wonderful human beings. And full disclosure, I am related to them. Gary is my second cousin on my mom’s side. I’ve known him my entire life, obviously. And I do love and adore him. I think that that will come through. He’s quite a character. Now, note that the format of this is a little bit different because I did film this in Malibu. And so you will just see a little photo of me. And mostly, it’ll be Gary talking. But I think that’s fine. So once again, thank you for joining us, and welcome to the podcast How To Disaster, our guest today, Gary Jones
“Normally what happens is people show up after a disaster, most of the money comes in six to eight weeks. And then a lot of the attention disappears, right as the recovery begins about one year post-disaster.” -Jennifer Thompson
My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson. As you saw from the intro, I am the CEO of After The Fire. And one of the things we do at our organization is that we make sure that we do back to communities. Normally, what happens is people show up after a disaster, most of the money comes in six to eight weeks, and then a lot of the attention disappears as the recovery begins about one year post disaster. Disaster really takes between, if you’re fortunate, seven years. Five to seven years for an entire place to rebuild. But often, you can see places that are not rebuilt 10, 20 and 30 years later. It’s largely dependent upon land value, and we’re always trying to puzzle out what are the levers for how you recover. And in this case, we are looking at the Woolsey Fire, and the Woolsey Fire happened on November 8, 2018, the same day that the Camp Fire broke out. It took place here in the area of Malibu Canyon and Evora Hills. And at first, all the way to the ocean in Malibu, and sitting here, Gary Jones who lost his home, lost it all, and just had been on this land for 30 years at that point had too many fires, but none that were quite like that. So I’m asking Gary to sit here with full disclosure because I do your transparency.
Gary is my family. He is my second cousin, my mom’s cousin, but I think it’s my own too. And we have a very large, wonderful extended wonderful family. We were devastated to learn about the losses, how we were surviving, but he did survive the incident which almost didn’t happen. And I’ve come back here to Agoura Hills, Mulholland Drive today to actually spend the day with Gary. Across the street from me at a mobile home park called [inaudible], I have some video from about 110 units that were lost right across the street of what we call naturally occurring. Everybody called naturally occurring affordable housing. All mobile home parks are naturally occurring affordable housing, and they’ve actually really come back beautifully. You probably hear the chainsaws, they’re still working on it, but I was very impressed. But we’re gonna actually switch back now to fairy story. We will provide some photos and videos building to see his plan.
First of all, welcome to the podcast, Gary. Thank you. I would love it if you would introduce yourself and talk to us about, when did you move to your land? How many fires have you seen before? And then tell us your fire story.
“I had missed all those other fires, and I thought that this is kind of like that…. And then all of a sudden, I began to smell smoke and it’s coming at me.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: Yeah. I’ve been up until about 35 every year since 1978. So every year around October time when the [inaudible] pick up, it’s always a concern. I remember a few years ago, I went to Washington DC and I went to Mount Vernon, George Washington. And while I was there, I bought a letter of fire bucket just like a George Washington hat and had a name on it, and I went back to the room, and here I am in my hotel looking at my friend’s bucket, and I look at the TV and Malibu was on fire. I’m thinking, I’m 3000 miles away and I got the wrong equipment. So every year, it was a concern. But this year, it actually happened. On that morning, I had heard about the fire that day before they said it was started. But I had missed all those other fires and I thought that you can do one kind of like that. It’s gonna go around. So about 7:00 in the morning, I went up to the top of the mountain and I could see the fire from several miles away. I wouldn’t say 10 miles away, and I didn’t smell smoke. We’re in good shape, my neighbor was there and I don’t think we got a problem. I think it’s gonna be biased. And then all of a sudden, I began to smell smoke. What had happened was wind shifted, and all of a sudden, it’s coming at me. So by the time I got down the mountain, the fire was already on my property.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So what was the time differential for that?
Gary Jones: From 7:00 in the morning to about 7:45. Takes about 10 minutes to get back out. So about 4:00 to 8:00, I got down the house and the fire was already on our house. I had a housekeeper staying overnight, so I told her we have to go now. And we grabbed, I had Abby, my small Jack Russell with me. I couldn’t get my other dog. I tried to get him in the car and it would depend. So I told her to make sure to get Charlie, my little terrier. As we’re leaving, there was a torch, a blowtorch on like the rods in the Vikings, but to where people.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They get fired tornado tale–
“911 showed up six days later. The point is you can’t count on anybody. You’re on your own. And when the man says ‘get your hat’, go get your hat.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: Tornado coming up to the top. And I got up to my gate, which is about 1,000 feet from the house, and the gate was on fire. I backed down to a spot on the road where I had [inaudible]. I backed down for the crossbow, both protection. I sat there and let the fire go by. Fortunately, I had a pair of goggles in the car. I grabbed them going out of place. And I had to visit him, sparks everywhere. So my neighbor saw me. I called my wife, she was in Texas, and I told her goodbye. I said that I have a real problem, and you get a break once. And then I hung up the phone and my neighbor saw me, she said: “Gary, get out there. Ram the gate with your car.”. And I couldn’t because it would jam the gate on the road — he suggested I call 911. Yeah, good idea. I’ll get to the fire department. 911 showed up six days later. I think the point is fire like this, you can’t count on anybody. You’re on your own. And when a man says get your hat, got to get your hat. Yeah, it’s really funny. I’ve talked to several people since the fire about what they took, what you grab, what’s important. And I’m here to tell you, they took some silly things. Things you wouldn’t, you think they think it through and advance but nobody does. So I got out of there. Eventually, I had a jacket in the car down on the gate. Got a jacket out using override, manual override, gate open. So I took off. But unfortunately, because of the fire, all the boulders that were being held up by the brush, or brush burned away, now the boulders are on the road. So I’ve got this road full of rocks, big rocks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And your road is really long, your driveway–
Gary Jones: Yep. So I went over these rocks for a while. I don’t know what the inside of the car looked like, but I [inaudible] the car that day. It was so hot at the gate and it melted the mirrors on the car. Got down to Canyon, and the fire caught me again. And this time, it was just whack. I mean, I could not see beyond my windshield wipers so I stopped the car, and about that time, I got hit by a truck.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because somebody is panicking?
Gary Jones: This guy saw the same thing I did. Only he wanted to get through it so he gave it gas instead of stopping. I stopped with it when we hit nobody. So the smoke cleared, and he just took off and that’s rude! We went up the road about a half a mile and the car was boiling over. I got in the car and approached him. I gave him a big hug. It was my neighbor, he was just trying to get away. So anyways, I then turned around and went back to my house. I dropped her off the freeway, and she didn’t have time to get a purse. So I gave her 20 bucks for bus fare. I moved up to the next day, came back around Mountain Lake, and I got to a bridge that was on fire. And they had dropped two things, and fire was coming up on both sides and up through the middle. And what had happened was over the gas line that went right underneath the bridge, and they had a bunch of debris that piled up, and got the gas line. So the gas line was on fire, and that’s burning their families. I hit the bridge as fast as I could on one side, I haven’t dropped off. Start to go back to the house. I noticed a bunch of smoke coming from behind the watch store. It’s a really thickly wooded area, and there were three homes here. So I went back there and this one house was completely gone. It was on fire and I grabbed the hose and I’m trying to put up the fire on the other house, it just got too hot, and I left. I got to track him. I told you guys, if you could save a house, and he did and put the fire out. And that saved the Rock Store.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you explain for people who don’t know what Rock Store is–
Gary Jones: A Rock Store is a motorcycle hangout where people come on Sunday. On any given Sunday, there’s probably 500 to 1000 motorcycles. And they ride the snake which is just beyond where we’re sitting right now. And it’s a two and a half mile road, it’s very windy. People come from all over the world to run snake. So it has become a famous place. The Rock Store was built in the 20’s, it’s made out of rock. That’s where they go to the Rock Store. Anyways, the neighbors got together and they put a plaque up, put my name on it. So a lot of guys don’t get to name the — Anyways, talk about the recovery part of it. It’s been almost three years, coming up pretty quick in three years. And seminole springs across the street, and pretty much back out of the 110 homes that went down, that’s probably booked at 90, or maybe even more than that are back in place. But right after that, the fire, not long after that, we had a COVID thing. And that has really changed the world. It is really extremely difficult to get permits because there’s nobody to talk to. You do drawings in an email on a computer and just wait for an answer. So it’s been time consuming, I think. I think if it hadn’t been for COVID, I probably have a permit right now. I’m still working on it. I’m only a couple weeks away at this point, I’m getting permits. I’m getting excited about that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So do you think that your house will take about a year to rebuild? Well, first, let’s go back and say that you were covered under what’s called the Fair Plan. Can you talk to us about how long have you been covered under it? Why you were covered under it? What the limitations are?
Gary Jones: A Fair Plan is like a subsidized insurance policy. Because people have loans, and the requirement for loans is that you have that insurance. And so the California Fair Plan is basically insurance cover. And they assigned points based on the risk. So after one of the fires, my insurance calculating Fair price went from $2,000 a year to 14,000 in one year. So what’s happened here? They assigned risk and they said that if you cut your brush back 500 feet, I had to cut back 200 feet which was a fire department permit. I took the back end of the 300 feet. People would have 500 feet claps around my house still worked out. I couldn’t have a concrete house. How much can you insure for only 1.5 million? During this closing fire, most of the houses in Santa Monica [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Except for across the streets, the naturally occurring affordable housing, you’re looking at a half a million dollars for those homes.
Gary Jones: So you have something to say about your rent raise, they only pay about $450 a month for their HOA fees. And they own the land, they own their house, and they paid for it in 15 months. So it’s very affordable for people on fixed incomes.
“There’s a cost-benefit analysis and usually if a mobile home park burns down in one of these fires, it’s done and it’s gone.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to be clear, it’s not unusual to find a mobile home park that is in a co-op model. They’re often discouraged, especially in the state of California for a variety of reasons. Doesn’t matter here. The reason why they were probably able to rebuild is because they had a coop model, because wildfire destroys the structure underneath. And so it’s very expensive. And in other states, it’s more profitable to own a mobile home park. But in our state, it’s definitely not profitable. So there’s a cost benefit analysis. And usually, if a mobile home park burns down in one of these fires, like it’s done and it’s gone.
Gary Jones: And they usually don’t come back. They took the opportunity to complete the infrastructure, so that all new lines or new water lines belong in the streets, and it’ll be a first class neighborhood.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It looks fantastic.
Gary Jones: All the trees burned out. So in five years or so, the vegetation will go back up and look nice. Right now, it looks a little sparse.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you’ve lived on that land about 35 years. I will show pictures, but it was like your house is sort of built on a ridge.
Gary Jones: Of course, the fire goes up to the ridge really fast.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Nobody loves a [inaudible] except for fire.
“Fire never has enough. It has an insatiable appetite.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: Fire has never had enough. It has an insatiable appetite. So far, the only things ever stop the fire, the fire department will tell you that. They’ve never ever stopped the fire. The only thing that stopped was the ocean. They know they can’t stop it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, fire behavior is so different in the past few years. Even with this current fire season, we’re right in the middle of the fire season in 2021. Dixie Fire has been going for about seven weeks. And then we have the Calgary fire. It’s threatening Tahoe and the CAL FIRE Chief got in front of cameras the other day. He said that there’s much unprecedented fire behavior. We’ve still never seen this what we’re currently experiencing, so it’s very perilous. When you bought your home, and we talked about this earlier today, there was no electricity.
Gary Jones: It was really in a remote place at a log cabin 40 acres. Had no power, no phone and a four wheel drive.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. Yes. They would still host all the family reunions, and then we would camp all around. Wonderful.
Gary Jones: My grandmother was one of 13 children. And of course, you know that number gets multiplied, and that’s why we have such a large family. So when they come up to the house, they stay two or three days, and I roast a pig. It’s a big potluck. Everybody has a good time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Everybody has a good time.
Gary Jones: I don’t have to entertain everybody that goes there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sometimes, you might have to introduce them though because there’s so many of us that it’s hard to track it. When you move there, there is the log cabin, and there’s a lot of Chaparral around you, there’s like one type of vegetation that fire loves.
Gary Jones: It takes a fire for it to propagate. It takes 1700 degrees to crack the seed. These hills are actually designed for fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: All of California is designed to fire. But even so, just like when I was in Santa Cruz last week, as some of you probably saw on our social media, I was in a Redwood Grove. And that’s a different type of need, a different type of fire. So you lived in this natural environment, and you lived in this log cabin for 35 years at that point, had been through many fires, but this fire moved faster and hotter than anything.
Gary Jones: The worst one. It caused the most damage of all the other fires. Edison took, like [inaudible] for the damage, but they wouldn’t take responsibility. There’s a difference.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What’s the difference?
Gary Jones: Well, liability means they will pay for things, but they weren’t responsible because of the wind. So they were partially responsible. They started, but the wind is what carries. So Edison has come into this area.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, Edison is the power company, for those of you that haven’t, yeah.
Gary Jones: They come into the area, and they don’t allow double dipping. In other words, they’re not going to pay twice for something. So your insurance pays you for the loss of the inside of your house. Edison won’t pay you for the same loss, but they do pay for things that you didn’t have insurance. I had a 27 foot boat, I didn’t have insurance. It’s just sitting there, so I got paid for that. They paid for the treats, brush, and shrubbery. I filled out a list, you have to talk about what you lost, and I came up with 500. I included the costs of my dogs, the cost of my birds, just everything you can imagine.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You had an aviary.
Gary Jones: I lost 200 birds, three dogs and a cat. And they had value. I mean, they were show dogs. So Edison did compensate me for things that my insurance did not cover.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They said there’s a cap on, I think, and what we’re talking about today is they just changed the cap that the Fair Plan pays for.
Gary Jones: Foreign capital for 1.5 million regardless of the value of the house. And after this fire, they’ve decided just totally inadequate. I wouldn’t be able to build my house back with that kind of money, so they’re gonna double it for next fires. I still have a California Fair Plan. I have California Fair Plan here on the show.