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Malibu Wildfire Survivors Brace for Mudslides

A severe storm dumped 2 inches of rain on the Malibu Coast wine area, sending mud and debris through streets and vineyards
Mud poured down the fire-scorched Malibu hills.
Photo by: Reed Saxon/AP Photo
Mud poured down the fire-scorched Malibu hills.

Lynn Alley
Posted: December 7, 2018

First came fire, then rain. As if recent devastating wildfires hadn’t caused enough suffering for the beleaguered Malibu Coast wine region, an unexpected severe storm dumped an estimated 2 inches of rain on Southern California yesterday. Mud and debris flowed down from the fire-scorched Malibu hills onto the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) during the morning commute, forcing officials to close the road until late afternoon.

(The storm also dumped several inches of snow on a stretch of Interstate 5, California’s main north-south thoroughfare, that passes through the Santa Monica Mountains, forcing its closure too).

An already massive and complicated cleanup of the hills between Highway 101 and the Malibu coast that was devastated by the Woolsey fire is now even more complicated. Not only are vintners and growers in the appellation dealing with the loss of homes, vineyards and habitat due to fire, but now they’ve got to think about rain, flooding and mudslides as California’s rainy season begins. (Fires increase the risk of mudslides by stripping the hills of vegetation that holds the soil in place.)

The Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), established in 2014, encompasses some 50 vineyards totaling approximately 200 acres spread out over 44,598 acres. None of the producers have winemaking facilities on site, due to local restrictions. Wines from Malibu grapes are generally produced in facilities in the Central Coast area. They are all small-production wines, sold mostly to high-end local restaurants in L.A. and consumers in the local tasting rooms or wine clubs.

The recent Woolsey fire devastated the area and hit many of the vineyards and wineries hard. Although the extent of damages and losses may not be fully known for many months, some vintners have lost everything: homes, vineyards and tasting rooms.

Dakota Semler, owner of Semler Malibu Estates and Saddlerock Vineyards, lost his house and vineyards and narrowly managed to save the exotic animals that were a part of Malibu Wine Safaris, his company that runs open-air vehicle “safaris” through his hillside vineyards.

Others' homes were spared, but still face damaged vineyards. Howard Leight, owner of Malibu Rocky Oaks Estate Vineyards, said, “Our vineyards and estate were originally planted for erosion and fire control, so I took everything and threw it into the house, which was like a fortress—covered French limestone. The vines actually took the brunt of the hit.”

In the days following the fires, locals and celebrities, many of whom had lost their own homes, banded together to form the Malibu Foundation to aid those who needed help the most. Gathering at the home of actor Gerard Butler and partner Morgan Brown, the celebs managed to raise $2 million to aid victims of the fire. Jamie Foxx, Sean Penn, Cindy Crawford, Rande Gerber, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver and Robin Thicke, along with Butler and Brown, were among those on hand. Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth (who lost their home in the fire) donated $500,000 to the cause. The Malibu Foundation’s website continues to accept donations for victims.

What’s next for Malibu’s vintners and growers? There will be a need for vine cuttings to replace damaged or destroyed vines. And more immediately, growers will need to prepare for the effects of rain. “There will be a very high potential for debris flow for the next three or four years,” said Chris Stone, assistant deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. “But we can identify where they will likely go. That helps us to plan, evacuate and be prepared.”

With the rains falling hard today, rebuilding will have to wait for now.

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