AS 50-FOOT-HIGH flames raced towards the coast, Malibu mayor Jefferson Wagner was dealing with down the fireplace. He wasn’t being a hero and even making an attempt to make it seem like he was. He was merely doing what lots of Malibu residents had been doing—making ready to defend his own residence.
The November 2018 Woolsey Fireplace, Los Angeles’ most harmful on report—it will declare three lives and 1,500 constructions—had already consumed almost 80,000 acres, pushed by bone-dry 70-mile-per-hour winds. Wagner’s residence sits in a rural canyon about six miles up the coast from Surfrider Seaside, well-known for its lengthy right-hand level break. As Wagner stood in his driveway, the golden hillsides round him had been being scorched black by the inferno.
When the preliminary wall of flames moved previous his home with out touching it, Wagner thought he was within the clear. However whereas inspecting his residence a couple of minutes later, nonetheless carrying the firefighter turnouts he stored available, he noticed smoke on the roof. “My coronary heart sank after I went for a ladder and realized that they had all melted,” he remembers. It was at this level that Wagner’s companion of 20 years, Candace Brown, determined to take their cat down towards the coast to security.
Whereas driving previous a bunch of firefighters a couple of hundred yards from their residence, Brown begged them to convey Wagner a ladder so he might save their residence. They refused, insistent they’d been ordered to remain put, a normal requirement for metropolis firefighters throughout a wildland blaze.
With no ladder, Wagner started preventing the fireplace from inside his residence, taking pictures water up towards the ceiling. However the roof collapsed, and one of many cinder blocks holding his satellite tv for pc dish in place landed on his head, knocking him out. Wagner got here to solely when melting roofing asphalt dripped onto him, burning by way of his jacket. Following the hose line exterior was all he might do to save lots of himself. His home burned fully, and he spent three days within the ICU with carbon monoxide poisoning and kidney injury.
“Firefighters was once my heroes” is all that Wagner says now of the incident.
José Mandojana for Males’s Journal
At 66 years previous, Wagner is a 44-year resident of Malibu. He’s owned a surf store on the town because the 1970s and is now in his second time period as mayor, a place rotated between 5 elected councilmembers over their four-year phrases. Whereas Malibu is usually seen as an unique enclave of the wealthy and well-known—a dreamland the place billionaires have sprawling estates and 30-foot-high hedges—Wagner’s Malibu could be very a lot rural California, a spot the place roads are nonetheless unpaved and a few residents reside in cellular houses on a shoestring.
“Persons are fascinated, even fixated, with Caitlin Jenner or Miley Cyrus,” Wagner says. “However there’s the remainder of us.”
However now, within the wake of the fireplace, Wagner is getting again to the enterprise of preserving previous Malibu—his Malibu—similar to he fought to save lots of his home. And he’s doing his finest to verify this struggle isn’t in useless, too.
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WHEN I STOPPED BY Wagner’s surf store sooner or later this summer time, he was slumped over, his head nestled into his arm on the counter. The shop was empty. When he heard me are available in, he popped awake and gave me his common heat good day and made a remark about catching up on sleep every time he can. He was visibly exhausted. And never simply bodily. Together with manning the surf store six days per week and lobbying his fellow councilmembers to vote no on intrusive new developments, he’s been compelled to battle, like many residents, together with his insurance coverage firm, which refused to pay out on his destroyed residence.
“I by no means had an actual retirement, I didn’t save correctly,” he says. “My retirement was my home. It’s speculated to be a time in my life after I’m winding down. It appears like I’m beginning throughout.”
Wagner has turn into notably good at combing by way of the tremendous print, so he’s disputing his insurance coverage firm on his personal, an uphill battle to say the least. It’s that focus to element that has made him notably efficient—and controversial—as Malibu’s mayor. Builders within the metropolis are infamous for making an attempt to subvert measurement and scope restrictions with intelligent language. Most of Wagner’s successes as mayor have had nothing to do with a sure or no vote however fairly in serving to to pressure extra community-friendly design by way of correctly worded rules. He’s notably pleased with Malibu’s distinction as one of many solely seaside cities in California to keep up a 28-foot peak restrict on new buildings.
“For instance, we didn’t cease the brand new Complete Meals from being constructed,” he says. “However we stopped it from being outsized. You actually should know the foundations to drag that off.”
Extra not too long ago, Wagner, together with a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Membership, helped scuttle U2 guitarist The Edge’s plans to construct a five-home subdivision on the bluffs above city. Most of the time, nonetheless, Wagner cuts a lonelier determine on the board. He was not too long ago outvoted four–1 on a proposal that will restrict residence measurement to 11,000 sq. ft. “Subsequent factor you already know, you’ve partitions for neighbors,” he says.
Being essentially the most vocal naysayer to improvement is one in all Wagner’s curmudgeonly charms, however critics say it’s additionally a lazy approach of positioning himself as a savior. One factor about Wagner, although: He’s by no means been afraid of stirring the pot. The truth is, in Could 2018, simply 18 months earlier than the Woolsey Fireplace, Wagner’s residence was raided at daybreak by Los Angeles County cops, weapons drawn. They had been looking for proof to show that he had not maintained a major residence inside Malibu metropolis limits, as is required to carry workplace.
José Mandojana for Males’s Journal
Wagner really owns two properties in Malibu, his home and a apartment lower than a mile from metropolis corridor. No costs had been filed.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” says Wagner. “I knew it immediately.” The raid occurred simply days after Wagner had voted towards a wage improve for a metropolis official. As we speak, Wagner will inform anybody who asks that it was retribution, even when that solely courts extra controversy.
“He’s proficient, however he will be fast to throw stones,” says fireplace captain and fellow councilmember Rick Mullen. “That stated, he’s very dependable in voting for the best issues—he’s been actually true to his phrase.”
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BORN IN PALM SPRINGS, and raised in Calabasas, Wagner found the surf scene in Malibu as a boy. The primary time he ever tried to catch a wave, he was pushed off his board by Surfrider legend Mickey Dora. A dozen or so years later, he opened his first surf store in a tiny area throughout from Zuma Seaside, which is how he picked up the nickname Zuma Jay, a moniker he nonetheless makes use of on his enterprise playing cards to this present day—each those for his surf store and for metropolis corridor. The primary store didn’t final lengthy, although, as he closed it so he might sail world wide for 2 years.
When he returned to Malibu, Wagner cemented his place by opening one other retailer, the one he operates right this moment. All through the last decade, Wagner surfed, formed boards, slept on the ground of his store, and took showers utilizing the hose out again. Certainly one of his most vivid reminiscences of that point was merely strolling on the seaside and listening to the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your ft,” he remembers. “That’s clear sand. In the event you go all the way down to Surfrider right this moment, you’ll by no means hear that squeak once more. I felt that proper down in my soul. I knew we needed to care for this place.”
Within the 1970s, Malibu hadn’t but been integrated as a metropolis—it was nonetheless below the jurisdiction of L. A. County—however the celebrities had been arriving in droves. Amongst gritty locals, Zuma Jay was a widely known and well-liked enterprise proprietor. He additionally had a knack for endearing himself to new A-listers on the town, like Johnny Carson, who emceed one in all Wagner’s fundraising occasions for a neighborhood park.
“I used to be constructing a fame as somebody who was truthful,” he says. “However largely simply as somebody who wouldn’t screw you.”
In the meantime, Wagner was nonetheless barely making ends meet with no matter his surf store pulled in, and so he was eternally hustling for odd facet jobs. Over time, that included stunt work, particular results gigs, trucking, and even weapons and explosives dealing with for the U.S. army throughout coaching workouts, which is an enormous a part of his earnings to this present day. “My plan was all the time to simply take the subsequent job that paid properly,” he says. “It’s a way of life.”
José Mandojana for Males’s Journal
Someday within the late 1980s, Wagner was noticed by famend style photographer Bruce Weber. Seemingly in a single day, he was incomes $three,000 a day as a mannequin doing campaigns for everybody from Banana Republic to Ralph Lauren. At 38, he was employed to be the Marlboro Man for print adverts, and the cash he earned from the gig helped him construct his residence in Latigo Canyon within the 1990s. Throughout this time he additionally obtained married, nevertheless it lasted simply lengthy sufficient to welcome his solely baby, daughter Ava.
It was within the 1990s that Wagner started to really feel that the officers working Malibu had been now not in contact together with his Malibu. He ran for workplace in 1993 however didn’t make the reduce. Over the subsequent decade, he remained energetic in native causes however stored politics at arm’s size. In 2008, at age 54, Wagner determined to run once more. This time, he threw much more sources into his marketing campaign. He not solely gained a spot on the council however he obtained extra votes than any of the opposite 4 profitable candidates. “I had matured,” he says. “And I grew to become extra centered.”
After all, turning into a metropolis official served solely to divulge to Wagner simply how contentious native politics had turn into. It additionally solid a lightweight on a few of Wagner’s contradictions. Again within the day, he was thought-about the outsider. Now he’s railing towards the brand new technology of change. It’s that deeply ingrained “previous Malibu” ethos that feeds his legend, nevertheless it additionally makes him vital to town at a fragile time.
“The legend and the person have turn into just a little inseparable at this level,” says fellow councilmember and onetime enterprise companion Mikke Pierson. “When Jay speaks, folks both say, ‘I can’t consider he simply stated that’ or ‘Thank God somebody lastly stated that.’ ”
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THE ROAD UP into Latigo Canyon snakes its approach by way of verdant countryside, already thriving after winter rains. There are groves of 200-year-old oak timber that by some means escaped the Woolsey blaze with little greater than a sunburn. Atop a slim ridge and spilling over a steep hillside is the plot of land the place Wagner’s residence as soon as sat. With the particles removing almost completed, it’s now simply a few empty terraces that look over a soot-filled swimming pool and a lonely tennis courtroom.
“They referred to as the bomb squad on me the opposite day,” he tells me, chuckling.
“They” is the debris-removal firm, which had unearthed some previous explosives Wagner had available for particular results. The explosives had been inert and innocent, however their labels had melted away within the fireplace. Wagner, in telling the story, is clearly amused that it triggered such a stir. It’s additionally a testomony to how unfazed he’s by controversy—any controversy.
“In the event you inform it like it’s—honestly and out of your coronary heart—you by no means should look over your shoulder,” he says. “This hearth would possibly put me in poverty, however I’ll nonetheless defend this little city till both I or it’s gone.”
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