“All the big decisions in life are before you”, says Gary Jones, a Woolsey Fire survivor. We have heard Gary’s story in part 1 of this interview. This week, Jennifer and Gary discuss practical lessons on survival, healing, and positivity. Tune in as Jennifer and Gary engage you in an insightful and fun conversation about the levers of recovery, rules and tips on rebuilding your property, and simple strategies for easier claiming of insurance. Most importantly, Gary shares how he was able to look at the positive side of things. A fire brings change and from that change comes the opportunity to make things better, acquire new things we can value, and create new memories we can fondly look back to.
“When the call for evacuation comes, take it seriously. When the fire is coming at you, you don’t have any time.” -Gary Jones
- 03:18: What’s It Feel Like Losing Everything?
- 06:20: Document Everything
- 10:20: Dealing with the Trauma
- 19:49: Fire Can Be Beautiful
- 24:13: Fire Mitigation
- 27:27: Take Warnings Seriously
04:39 “A lot of people ask you, ‘what does it feel like losing everything- It’s liberating.
You go through life and you accumulate things. And then your life changes and you decide not to use that thing.” -Gary Jones
05:28: “All the big decisions in life are before you.” -Gary Jones
10:26: “Holding it in is not the answer. Express yourself. A lot of people don’t do that. It’s easier just to not talk, but it’s not the answer.” -Gary Jones
11:02: “The only way through it, is through it.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
15:02: “What you lost in your experience is worth grieving over. You should respect what happened there, but you have to let go of the day before it happened because that doesn’t exist anymore.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
16:17: “The only real mistake you can make is thinking that you have to do this alone because you don’t have to.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
18:28: “Mental health is important, you do have to take care of yourself… Call the helpline, that’s why they exist. And know that it can and does pass, you can get through it.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
20:25: “Fire can be beautiful because it brings change.” -Gary Jones
24:29: “You can solve problems by acting in advance and reacting at the time.” -Gary Jones
27:28: “When the call for evacuation comes, take it seriously. When the fire is coming at you, you don’t have any time.” -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: Welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast where we talk about how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. 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 and the Woolsey fire as well. And many people showed up to help.
Gary and his wife Jeanne 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. 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. We’re looking at people who are trying to rebuild for 100 to $400,000 in other rural areas, but our constituency at After The Fire is all fire victims, and that would include Gary and his wife, Jean. Gary’s wife, Jean, are your normal, average, very wonderful human beings. And full disclosure, I am related to them. Gary is my second cousin on my mom’s side, and I’ve known him my entire life, obviously. And I do love and adore him. And 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 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.
“A lot of people ask you, ‘what does it feel like losing everything- It’s liberating. You go through life and you accumulate things. And then your life changes and you decide not to use that thing.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: I’m faced with a couple of problems on my property. My septic system was plugged, and I had a soil guy come out. He managed to find my septic system, poked a hole right through the top of the septic and I had to pick it out. But I got the thing back together for less than 15,000 bucks, which I thought was pretty great. In the case down here, what may happen is I’ve got a sewer right there. So my neighbor’s going to bring it up past me. I think I’m just gonna hook this thing up short. Improve the value of your property
Well, a lot of people ask you, what’s your feel like losing everything? And it’s kind of liberating.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’ve heard that from other fire survivors. Yeah.
Gary Jones: It’s kind of a liberating feeling because it’s gone. You go through life and you accumulate things, and then your life changes and you decide not to use that thing. I had scuba gear, I don’t scuba anymore.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know it’s coming. I have a clip of you where, the thing about hobbies, fire, and hobbies you don’t do anymore. Take care of that hobby.
“All the big decisions in life are before you.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: It makes a decision for you. That’s one of my beliefs. All the big decisions in life are before you that you have to make, starting with birth.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s a decision. Yeah. You said things that you really loved though that were sad, like you had a Model T.
Gary Jones: Yeah, fun toys. But actually, of all the things, I missed the bushes. I saw myself as a custodian and teach. I had an American flag, 13 stars, 13 stripes. I can’t get that back. So some of the things that we still had. But for the most part, it’s just stuff.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: For the dogs.
Gary Jones: Yeah, yeah, the dogs, super sad one. What could I have done differently? And the thing is during a fire like that, you’re just reacting. These people, they just grabbed something. Not very many of them grab pictures, [inaudible], grab your cell phone, and their computer or their laptop, and pillows, blankets, fuse.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think it’s a good argument considering that you think about just sort of ahead of time. And I think that’s what the CAL FIRE Chief was really clear about the other day, at some point he probably thought about it in advance. What he said was, at some point, every acre of California will burn. And maybe that was a little bit hyperbolic, but not really. There’s nothing wrong with thinking in advance. We don’t have a lot of valuable things in our house, so hey, looters, whatever, it’s all from the garage sale side anyway. I do have a couple pieces of art that were made for us by my husband’s cousin and just a few things that are sentimental. So every time I’m evacuated, or get ready to evacuate, which has been several times now, I make sure that those are on my list. But that’s one hard thing to think about.
Gary Jones: One of the things that I have fortunately done for months before the fire was I took a video. I mean, photograph every room in the house. Everything I have, I took a picture. I had that photograph to fill out that list of 500 items like so. But what I would say to people is I didn’t take a picture of what’s in the drawers.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay. [inaudible] of the picture within every room of your house, you can videotape. Yes. My mother, when I told you recently, please go around and videotape your house including the drawers. She was like, what do I do with the drawers? You’ve got stuff in your drawers, you don’t think about what’s in there.
Gary Jones: Watches in one drawer. I wish I did take what was in that drawer.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Contents were our, I was really grateful that somebody, a friend who had a three bedroom, two bath home, she actually let me have her contents list so I could show people. I took off all the identifying information, but you don’t think about what’s in your hallway. She had to itemize what was in her hallway. Yeah, it’s a very brutal process. It’s really hard to do after you’ve been through major trauma, and there’s no way around it that is very dramatic.
Gary Jones: One of things that I would recommend to the fire department, for the police, actually, two of my friends lost their houses the day after, and they lost them because they wouldn’t let him back in. My thoughts are, what they should have done is once the fire is gone by, okay, let the people come back for some period of time to check on their house, to see if there’s bushes burning. Because what happened to my friends is that there was a very small fire that they could have put out with a bucket of water. But because nobody was there, their house burned down. So they say the reason they do this is because they don’t want looters, most everything burned up anyways.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know looters are weird. They look for copper, but they could check your address, they could escort you if they have the capability in the manpower, or the woman power.
Gary Jones: I would like to see, like real, to have been able to go back to his house, he would have stayed because [inaudible]], but they were locked out for weeks at a time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: After seeing so many fires, I think that I can see both sides of that argument only because these mega fires are so understaffed. And often, they’re happening, like the Woolsey fire broke out on the same day as the Campfire. So you had an unprecedented huge fire in Butte County, in Paradise on the very same day, like at the same time, the Woolsey fire broke out. So you have all of these mutual aid engines running to each and not knowing what to do. And in this case in Malibu, and this is true in Paradise as well, very mountainous, the communication systems failed. And if you were depending upon internet phone or cellular service, you didn’t have any of that. And that was very confusing to some people who lived here because then they got really upset with, especially the city of Malibu, why did you let our houses burn down, we saw fire trucks and went to places that made no sense to us.
But part of the story that’s gotten lost is, or isn’t that public, that there was no resilient communication structure. These are canyons here, and you can’t send other people’s, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters up into a canyon with no communication who are not from here and cannot navigate it. And we think you can solve communication systems. If you can solve communication systems, you probably have an opportunity to actually allow people to go back and check their homes as they show proof of ID. There are ways to innovate our way out of this, but we didn’t know it until your fires happened with Campfire, I don’t think we were really aware of what our future was going to look like in the American West like it does today. So here, almost four years post disaster for us, almost three years post disaster for you, and we’ve just become the land of mega fires.
Gary Jones: Last year, [inaudible] every night talking about California being on fire. It’s the thing we deal with here. It’s working.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m just gonna stare into the abyss, and I’m gonna watch it stare back. That’s fine. But we can’t because we can live alongside fire though. We can learn to do that. Those are really good lessons that you’ve brought up so far. It’s been a pretty long three years. What was the first year like for you sort of dealing with the trauma because everybody has to process the trauma.
Gary Jones: I think that everybody who goes through something like this, and it lasts for a while, your thoughts every night. The second year was better, and this is even better yet. So time heals all, it just takes a little time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Do you have any recommendations for people who aren’t sure how to deal with their PTSD, or because you’re pretty recently engaged. We don’t know this about Gary, but he’s always falling off of motorcycles, different pieces of apparatus into the roads, and every couple of years we’re like, Gary. So he’s a very resilient human being to begin with. I think that might almost be in our blood, quite frankly. But do you have any advice for people?
“Holding it in is not the answer. Express yourself. A lot of people don’t do that. It’s easier just to not talk, but it’s not the answer.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: Holding this is not the answer. Just express yourself. A lot of people don’t do that, they’ll hold it in.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Why do you think they do that? Why do you think they hold it in?
Gary Jones: I think it’s easier just to not talk. I think it’s easier to just kind of deal with it, be a man about it, or a woman, but it’s not the answer. You need to talk to people.
“The only way through it, is through it.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because it’s gonna come for you either way. The only way through it is through it.
Gary Jones: First of all, you have to change you. After the fire, you start a new life, you build new memories. And as you build new memories, your memories can fade away. So I think that’s what happened. Like anything else like divorce, it just takes time to get over.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You told your fire story today, but we’ve talked about your fire story before. And I actually really liked the fact that even on social media, we have, again, a very big family, a very loving big family. You weren’t afraid to talk about it. That’s not the means for everybody, but I think a lot of us appreciated knowing even when it was hard, or even what your small victories were, or seeing the photo of you standing in front of all of it which had burned.
Gary Jones: I still see that photo. I remember what I was thinking. I try to be positive because I’m looking at it a[inaudible]. I’m going to have a nicer house than I have before. And it’ll be exactly what my wife wants. When you buy a log cabin, you didn’t design it, you just bought it, there’s things you would have liked to have changed. So we’ve designed a house that fits us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And when you build your new house out of, what’s the material, because it is not wood.
Gary Jones: Well, [inaudible], it’s got to be concrete. It looked like these walls here just like wood, but it’ll be concrete. The windows will be triple glazed, glass on the outside, glass on the inside, and polycarbonate in the middle. It’s the outside glass, it won’t go through the polycarbonate to keep it out of the house. If you can keep the fire out of the house, chances are [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What about your vents? Did they talk to you about your venting system?
Gary Jones: They all have to be covered, and you have to have special vents so that small flames can’t get into any attic. They now require 16,500 gallons of water if you don’t have a hydrant near your house, there’s a lot of rule changes. After every event, they come up with more rules. And now, one of the rules is any private property, driveway has to be 26 feet wide. That rule alone, most of the property in the Santa Monica Mountains working because you can’t build a 26 foot drive. [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Which you don’t want to do. What a variance is like there’s a rule, a policy that if you can get a variance, and the variance does as it says, you don’t have to follow that rule, but it doesn’t mean that they take away all of the rules.
Gary Jones: So they’ve been up there, they come up three or four times a year, so they can get a firetruck up there. But the new rules require it to be 26 feet wide, my roads about 17 feet. It would be impossible to make. Basically, recovery is a long process. It takes time.
“What you lost in your experience is worth grieving over. You should respect what happened there, but you have to let go of the day before it happened because that doesn’t exist anymore.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It takes time. And we talk to a lot of people when there may be a day or week post disaster, and they are understandably in a huge state of grief and loss. I tried to say to them, you know what you lost in your experience, it’s worth grieving over. You should respect what happened there. And eventually, I have to say to them, but we can’t give you back the day before. Like you have to let go of the day before it happened because that doesn’t exist anymore. And in the first year, we see a lot of people who are so traumatized and they’re looking to try to just to get back to the day before, and that’s not going to happen.
Gary Jones: People in a mobile home park out for a year and a half for the [inaudible] coming back. Normally, they have two deaths a year.
“The only real mistake you can make is thinking that you have to do this alone because you don’t have to.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s pretty common in disasters is some people, they just look at the totality of it. And they think, how am I ever going to get through this. And one of our jobs with After The Fire is for them to know that you don’t have to get through it alone. We actually have a huge group of fire survivors who will talk to you about how to get through, it’s one reason why we do the podcast. The only real mistake you can make is thinking that you have to do this alone because you don’t have to do it alone. And no matter who you are, what your position is, if you are a person who is not a high wealth individual, or if you’re non English speaking, or if you’re a high wealth individual, you’re still our constituent, and we will still find somebody or many people who are happy to talk to you because you’re in a club now. And to borrow your language, it’s a [inaudible] club. But it’s full of the most amazing people. And if you join the club, you’re actually going to meet the best people along the way.
Gary Jones: The newscaster [inaudible] that they didn’t come up there. I mean, they just let it burn. They couldn’t put it down. They went as far as a clubhouse, and didn’t go any further. Next day, they come down, and they go to his house and give him 2500 bucks worth of gift cards. Like you said, people want to help out. Now what I can do is I can take this money, go buy myself a nice motel and shoot myself. Of course, he was joking and they all laughed. Well, the next day, social service showed up. [inaudible], are you okay?
“Mental health is important, you do have to take care of yourself… Call the helpline, that’s why they exist. And know that it can and does pass, you can get through it.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, yeah. Because it happens. They do. They do, and it’s so sad. We had that happen after our fires, there’s this gentleman, I mean, it was on the news, but I’m not going to say his name or his occupation, but he went up to his home site and he committed suicide. And I would still think about his family or his wife, like that would be such a compounded tragedy. And if people sort of normalize the fact that mental health is really important, you do have to take care of yourself, you do have to have strategies, and those strategies can be faith, they can be friends, they can be family, it can be a myriad of things, and no one thing works for everyone. But I would strongly encourage anyone who is sort of despondent after a disaster to call the helpline. That’s why they exist. And to know that that can, and does pass, you can get through it. The only podcast that I’ve done so far with anybody from the Woolsey fire, and it was good. I love that you have this relationship with the people at Seminole Springs, and many things for Fannie Mae were very active in their recovery. And the Malibu foundation as well, very helpful. Their community was, they really advocated well for themselves, and none of it goes smoothly. For the record, do not expect that but it is possible. You never left your land, to be clear. And you have a very strong relationship with your lands. And you were the first person to ever show me that fire can also be good.
Gary Jones: Can be beautiful.
“Fire can be beautiful because it brings change.” -Gary Jones
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It can be beautiful because it brings change. So what are your sort of closing thoughts around that because it really did help me, and I had already been working in this space for 13, 14 months, 15 months by the time we took a fire [inaudible]. And then Gary showed me Native American Dance circles and tools, and how people had lived, and it had only been revealed by the fire.
Gary Jones: You go back there and now, you can’t see [inaudible] brush.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: As well, it should be.
Gary Jones: Yeah, keep people away from it. I think there’s a lot of beauty in what can come out of a fire, it just takes time. You get all those nutrients from the soil, from trees and things like that for a couple of years. Couple more, three more years. Things will be back to [inaudible], the plants will be talking to each other again. And a lot of the brush, one of the plants that we burned out of here was a plant called [inaudible], almost a pure white.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When people make [inaudible] that, but I don’t know anybody that might be [inaudible].
Gary Jones: All that’s gone now. And what came back in its place is a plant called Morning Glory. And the problem with Morning Glory is it’s a vine, and it completely covers a mountain and slows down, shutting the light off from the other plants or seeds that are below it. So it’s a problem. That was one of the things Edison compensated for was that it destroyed part of my land that [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So did you have it removed? What did you do?
Gary Jones: We had to tear it out. Dig it out, that’s a big deal. You can’t walk through it, you’ll trip, you have to walk on top of it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you were saying that the things that come from the fire that are not bad things are, this is not a religious podcast. Gary, I’m not religious and Gary knows that, but I respect the fact that he is. I know that that has been a big source of comfort for him. Can you just say that, talked about that too, that that was one of your strategies for healing.
Gary Jones: I think people with the [inaudible] do better in times like this, because they know they’re not in charge. Have never been in charge so they just let it go. It’s easier for people with a belief system, I think. Same with being an alcoholic. They talk about higher power, once you give it up to someone else, or to a spiritual [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about this year is, because somebody said it to me not because I came up with it on my own, it was so fearful to watch the earth sort of rebel in a way they had no control over. It still feels like a fire monster when I see it, and because it makes its own weather, and it’s terrifying. But it’s also a reminder that we are not in charge of the earth. The sea will rise as the sea wants to rise, and all the ways you’ve been trying to control the earth, or all the things that are getting us into trouble with climate change, some of that may be naturally occurring, but a lot of it is something that we can mitigate or help, and have a better and bigger respect for earth.
“You can solve problems by acting in advance and reacting at the time.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: There’s nothing wrong with being conscious of the environment and trying to cut back pollution, things like that. It’s about all you can do is react to charge when a planet hits. Part comes, deal with it. You can solve problems by preventing [inaudible].
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Now, there are things we can do to make the wild lands safer. You can’t prevent it, but you certainly can, that’s why, I like to say that I’m in the business of mitigating pain. That’s what I do. All of our before the fire programs, they’re about mitigating the effects of the chances of having a devastating mega fire, it’s not about preventing wildfire. Not at all. But how to deal with it, and then help people navigate, help communities navigate, bring best practices which is what the podcast is about, and new ideas. And none of them are prescriptions, they’re all adaptable systems.
Gary Jones: They didn’t have insurance. The house paid off, and that’s a way to save some money. They were on a fixed income, and they lost everything, and they dealt with it differently. Edison would have bought them a new house.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But they don’t know at the time though, all they see is despair. So you have to give yourself a hot minute if you’re in despair post disaster.
Gary Jones: So what California floorplan does? It just doesn’t make sense to, my neighbor up on top, he was a renter. He was paying $7,000 a month rent, and he had no insurance. Renter’s insurance is cheap.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s so cheap, and it’s quick.
Gary Jones: It’s quick.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m not even sure that renter’s insurance was that common before. But I hope that if you don’t have insurance, please take care of that today. We see that a lot in our fires as well. The first night of our fires, I met an entire family who had lost their home and it was paid off, so they didn’t pay their insurance anymore, and they were absolutely devastated. And FEMA will not make you whole. They may give you the average some assistance, but you will never be able to get home again. And we really, really want you to get home again. So even if it’s just the bare minimum of insurance, you still need insurance. You gotta have it. So the more, the better. Do you have something that I didn’t ask you that you wish that I had asked, or anything that you would want people to know, they remember your story.
“When the call for evacuation comes, take it seriously. When the fire is coming at you, you don’t have any time.” -Gary Jones
Gary Jones: People say, when the call for evacuation comes, take it seriously. Get out. If I had done that the day before, I would have gotten my dogs out because I would have time. When the fire is coming at you, you don’t have any time to take the right stuff. But what do you take, what’s important.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, yeah. That’s actually a really common regret that I hear from people that they’re okay with losing their couch, their stuff is gone, their stuff is gone. But their animals are what [inaudible]. I hear you. I want to thank you so much for spending such a wonderful day with me. Because even though [inaudible] is telling me your story, and this has been my, I think this has been my third time since the fires and I will come again, and I’m very much looking forward to doing a podcast again when you are rebuilt. I mean, very excited about that. I’m hoping that you get one of the seatbelt next time. Okay. Well, this has been the How To Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. And thank you so much for joining us Gary Jones.