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 quite a lot of Malibu residents have been doing—making ready to defend his own residence.
The November 2018 Woolsey Fireplace, Los Angeles’ most damaging on report—it might declare three lives and 1,500 buildings—had already consumed practically 80,000 acres, pushed by bone-dry 70-mile-per-hour winds. Wagner’s house sits in a rural canyon about six miles up the coast from Surfrider Seashore, well-known for its lengthy right-hand level break. As Wagner stood in his driveway, the golden hillsides round him have 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 house a couple of minutes later, nonetheless sporting the firefighter turnouts he saved 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 associate 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 house, Brown begged them to convey Wagner a ladder so he might save their house. They refused, insistent they’d been ordered to remain put, a basic requirement for metropolis firefighters throughout a wildland blaze.
With no ladder, Wagner started combating the fireplace from inside his house, 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 harm.
“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 for the reason that 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 commonly 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 may be very a lot rural California, a spot the place roads are nonetheless unpaved and a few residents reside in cell houses on a shoestring.
“Persons are fascinated, even fixated, with Caitlin Jenner or Miley Cyrus,” Wagner says. “However there may be 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—identical to he fought to save lots of his home. And he’s doing his greatest to verify this combat isn’t in useless, too.
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WHEN I STOPPED BY Wagner’s surf store someday this summer season, he was slumped over, his head nestled into his arm on the counter. The shop was empty. When he heard me are available, he popped awake and gave me his regular heat hey and made a remark about catching up on sleep each 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, along with his insurance coverage firm, which refused to pay out on his destroyed house.
“I by no means had an actual retirement, I didn’t save correctly,” he says. “My retirement was my home. It’s imagined to be a time in my life after I’m winding down. It seems like I’m beginning throughout.”
Wagner has change into notably good at combing by way of the fantastic print, so he’s disputing his insurance coverage firm on his personal, an uphill battle to say the least. It’s that spotlight 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 quite in serving to to power extra community-friendly design by way of correctly worded laws. He’s notably pleased with Malibu’s distinction as one of many solely seashore cities in California to keep up a 28-foot top restrict on new buildings.
“For instance, we didn’t cease the brand new Entire Meals from being constructed,” he says. “However we stopped it from being outsized. You actually need to know the foundations to drag that off.”
Extra lately, 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. As a rule, nonetheless, Wagner cuts a lonelier determine on the board. He was lately outvoted four–1 on a proposal that might restrict house measurement to 11,000 sq. toes. “Subsequent factor you realize, you’ve got partitions for neighbors,” he says.
Being probably the most vocal naysayer to growth is certainly one of Wagner’s curmudgeonly charms, however critics say it’s additionally a lazy manner of positioning himself as a savior. One factor about Wagner, although: He’s by no means been afraid of stirring the pot. Actually, in Might 2018, simply 18 months earlier than the Woolsey Fireplace, Wagner’s house was raided at daybreak by Los Angeles County cops, weapons drawn. They have been trying to find 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 truly owns two properties in Malibu, his home and a condominium lower than a mile from metropolis corridor. No prices have been filed.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” says Wagner. “I knew it instantly.” The raid occurred simply days after Wagner had voted towards a wage improve for a metropolis official. At present, Wagner will inform anybody who asks that it was retribution, even when that solely courts extra controversy.
“He’s proficient, however he may be fast to throw stones,” says fireplace captain and fellow councilmember Rick Mullen. “That stated, he’s very dependable in voting for the fitting 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 Seashore, 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 all over the world for 2 years.
When he returned to Malibu, Wagner cemented his place by opening one other retailer, the one he operates immediately. All through the last decade, Wagner surfed, formed boards, slept on the ground of his store, and took showers utilizing the hose out again. One among his most vivid reminiscences of that point was merely strolling on the seashore and listening to the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your toes,” he remembers. “That’s clear sand. For those who go right down to Surfrider immediately, you’ll by no means hear that squeak once more. I felt that proper down in my soul. I knew we needed to handle this place.”
Within the 1970s, Malibu hadn’t but been included as a metropolis—it was nonetheless beneath the jurisdiction of L. A. County—however the celebrities have been arriving in droves. Amongst gritty locals, Zuma Jay was a well 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 certainly one of Wagner’s fundraising occasions for a neighborhood park.
“I used to be constructing a status 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 without end hustling for odd aspect jobs. Through the years, 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 a giant a part of his revenue to this present day. “My plan was at all times to only take the subsequent job that paid nicely,” he says. “It’s a life-style.”
José Mandojana for Males’s Journal
Someday within the late 1980s, Wagner was noticed by famend vogue 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 house in Latigo Canyon within the 1990s. Throughout this time he additionally acquired married, however 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 have been now not in contact along with his Malibu. He ran for workplace in 1993 however didn’t make the minimize. Over the subsequent decade, he remained lively in native causes however saved politics at arm’s size. In 2008, at age 54, Wagner determined to run once more. This time, he threw way more assets 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 targeted.”
After all, changing into a metropolis official served solely to divulge to Wagner simply how contentious native politics had change into. It additionally forged a lightweight on a few of Wagner’s contradictions. Again within the day, he was thought of 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, however it additionally makes him essential to the town at a fragile time.
“The legend and the person have change into a bit of inseparable at this level,” says fellow councilmember and onetime enterprise associate 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 manner by way of verdant countryside, already thriving after winter rains. There are groves of 200-year-old oak bushes 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 house as soon as sat. With the particles removing practically completed, it’s now simply a few empty terraces that look over a soot-filled swimming pool and a lonely tennis court docket.
“They known 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 have been inert and innocent, however their labels had melted away within the fireplace. Wagner, in telling the story, is clearly amused that it precipitated such a stir. It’s additionally a testomony to how unfazed he’s by controversy—any controversy.
“For those who inform it like it’s—honestly and out of your coronary heart—you by no means need to 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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