Robert Kerbeck’s Malibu Burning chronicles what it was like to survive the 2018 Woolsey Fire—the worst fire Los Angeles County ever saw and one of the most destructive in California’s history. Kerbeck wrote Malibu Burning for two reasons—to give people a firsthand look at what it was like inside the Woolsey Fire and to help homeowners prepare their homes and themselves for the next inferno.  

“The sad, ugly truth is that almost no changes have been made, not by government agencies or by political leadership,” Kerbeck says. “One of the locals calls it YOYO fire: You’re On Your Own. That doesn’t mean homeowners have to stay behind, but there are many things homeowners can do that are inexpensive to save their homes.”  

He notes in the book that four of the 10 worst fires in California’s history have happened in the last two years. “Everyone—every agency, every elected official, every homeowner—needs to do better in the future to combat this epidemic,” Kerbeck says.

The author felt that he had to warn people, not just people whose homes might be affected, but those who might not realize the danger posed by a fire several miles away. “It’s not just those in the fire’s path that are affected,” he says. “Anyone breathing the toxic smoke from a fire, even one 20 or more miles away, is breathing the remains of refrigerators, washers, dryers, insulation materials, chemicals, tools, and anything else that can’t withstand the 2,000-degree heat these fires bring.”

Unlike many debut authors, Kerbeck didn’t have Malibu Burning in his back pocket as a project he always wanted to write; in fact, he came to the story somewhat reluctantly. Following the Woolsey Fire, the New York Times contacted him after learning of his background as the founder of the Malibu Writers Circle. He’s a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose essays and short stories have been featured in the Atticus Review, Narratively, Cimarron Review, The Normal School,and Los Angeles Magazine and is a lifetime member of The Actors Studio and award-winning actor.  

He ended up writing about the Woolsey Fire for the Los Angeles Times in a piece that got more than a million views online. That became the impetus for the book.  

Malibu Burning opens with a harrowing scene. Kerbeck and his teenage son are trying to protect their Malibu home from an approaching wildfire, and he realizes the flames are advancing more quickly than he thought.

Garden hoses in hand, legs braced against the searing winds, he and I were pushing the very edge of judgment and safety in our desperation to protect our home. As fireballs pelted the yard around us, it hit me that I’d made a horrific mistake.

Teaching risk assessment was one of the most important jobs of a parent, and I was imparting this lesson to my son in the worst possible way.

In Malibu Burning, which Kirkus calls “an engrossing, thorough, and revealing portrait of a beloved beachside community confronting disaster,” Kerbeck sought to dispel some common misperceptions. First, he explained that Malibu’s residents aren’t all movie stars and rich people, as non-Californians might expect.

There is a whole social structure in Malibu that most outsiders don’t even know exists. For every Barbra Streisand zealously guarding her cliffside estate, there are scores of residents who struggle to make ends meet. These men and women—teachers, working couples, broke surfers, students, families with kids, the elderly living on fixed incomes—banded together during the Woolsey Fire to save hundreds of homes, sometimes entire neighborhoods.

Second, he had to convey early on that when he first moved to Malibu 20-plus years ago, he was told that there would be no firefighters when the need arose. If he wanted to save his place, he would need to stay and fight for it himself. 

“I had to let the stories of the firefighters come from people’s firsthand experiences,” Kerbeck says. Kerbeck includes story after story—from the perspectives of retired firefighters, elected officials, and ordinary residents—about firefighters who refused to get out of their trucks to try to save more houses from the flames. He tells the story of Malibu City Council member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner and his girlfriend Candace Brown, who were trying to save their home during the Woolsey blaze—nearly dying in the process—when she spotted fire engines parked nearby and pleaded with the firefighters sitting inside to help. 

Their ladder had burned, she explained, and they needed help getting on the roof. The response from the fire captain: “We’re not assigned to that area” and “we don’t have orders. Sorry.” None of the firefighters would get out of their engines. 

So why live in Malibu at all if there’s an annual threat of wildfires? “It’s not because of the ocean, not because of the mountains, it’s because of the people,” Kerbeck says. “The people in Malibu—most of them—aren’t rich, aren’t entitled, and aren’t snobby. They’re the most salt-of-the-earth people. So many people didn’t need to put their lives at risk to save their neighborhoods and their homes, and what’s amazing is they did just that.” 

Kerbeck has parlayed the expertise he gained from his personal experience and the more than 200 interviews he conducted researching Malibu Burning. He says, “I went from being an accidental firefighter to a reluctant wildfire expert through writing this book.” 

Kim Lyons is a Western Pennsylvania–based writer and editor with a soft spot for a great story.