AS 50-FOOT-HIGH flames raced towards the coast, Malibu mayor Jefferson Wagner was dealing with down the hearth. He wasn’t being a hero and even making an attempt to make it seem like he was. He was merely doing what plenty 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 could 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 readily 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 gaggle of firefighters a number of hundred yards from their residence, Brown begged them to deliver Wagner a ladder so he might save their residence. 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 hearth 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 means of his jacket. Following the hose line exterior was all he might do to avoid wasting himself. His home burned utterly, and he spent three days within the ICU with carbon monoxide poisoning and kidney harm.
“Firefighters was my heroes” is all that Wagner says now of the incident.
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 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 dwell in cell properties 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 hearth, Wagner is getting again to the enterprise of preserving previous Malibu—his Malibu—identical to he fought to avoid wasting his home. And he’s doing his greatest to ensure this battle isn’t in useless, too.
WHEN I STOPPED BY Wagner’s surf store at some point 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, he popped awake and gave me his standard heat hi there 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, 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 seems like I’m beginning throughout.”
Wagner has grow to be notably good at combing by means of the positive 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 dimension 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 means of correctly worded laws. 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 need to know the principles 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, nevertheless, Wagner cuts a lonelier determine on the board. He was lately outvoted four–1 on a proposal that will restrict residence dimension to 11,000 sq. toes. “Subsequent factor you already know, you’ve gotten partitions for neighbors,” he says.
Being essentially the most vocal naysayer to growth is one among Wagner’s curmudgeonly charms, however critics say it’s additionally a lazy method of positioning himself as a savior. One factor about Wagner, although: He’s by no means been afraid of stirring the pot. In reality, in Might 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 trying to find proof to show that he had not maintained a main residence inside Malibu metropolis limits, as is required to carry workplace.
Wagner really owns two properties in Malibu, his home and a rental 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 in opposition to a wage enhance for a metropolis official. At this time, Wagner will inform anybody who asks that it was retribution, even when that solely courts extra controversy.
“He’s proficient, however he might be fast to throw stones,” says hearth captain and fellow councilmember Rick Mullen. “That stated, he’s very dependable in voting for the proper issues—he’s been actually true to his phrase.”
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 house 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 at the present time—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 in all his most vivid recollections of that point was merely strolling on the seaside and listening to the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your toes,” he remembers. “That’s clear sand. If you happen to go all the way 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 deal with 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 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 among Wagner’s fundraising occasions for an area park.
“I used to be constructing a popularity as somebody who was truthful,” he says. “However principally 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 perpetually 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 workout routines, which is an enormous a part of his revenue to at the present time. “My plan was all the time to only take the following job that paid nicely,” he says. “It’s a way of life.”
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 residence in Latigo Canyon within the 1990s. Throughout this time he additionally obtained married, nevertheless it lasted simply lengthy sufficient to welcome his solely little one, daughter Ava.
It was within the 1990s that Wagner started to really feel that the officers working Malibu had been not in contact with his Malibu. He ran for workplace in 1993 however didn’t make the reduce. Over the following 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 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 successful candidates. “I had matured,” he says. “And I turned extra centered.”
After all, changing into a metropolis official served solely to disclose to Wagner simply how contentious native politics had grow to be. It additionally solid a lightweight on a few of Wagner’s contradictions. Again within the day, he was thought of the outsider. Now he’s railing in opposition to the brand new era of change. It’s that deeply ingrained “previous Malibu” ethos that feeds his legend, nevertheless it additionally makes him vital to the town at a fragile time.
“The legend and the person have grow to be a bit of inseparable at this level,” says fellow councilmember and onetime enterprise companion Mikke Pierson. “When Jay speaks, individuals both say, ‘I can’t consider he simply stated that’ or ‘Thank God somebody lastly stated that.’ ”
THE ROAD UP into Latigo Canyon snakes its method by means of verdant countryside, already thriving after winter rains. There are groves of 200-year-old oak timber that in some way 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 elimination almost completed, it’s now simply a few empty terraces that look over a soot-filled swimming pool and a lonely tennis courtroom.
“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 readily available for particular results. The explosives had been inert and innocent, however their labels had melted away within the hearth. Wagner, in telling the story, is clearly amused that it brought on such a stir. It’s additionally a testomony to how unfazed he’s by controversy—any controversy.
“If you happen to 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 fireplace may put me in poverty, however I’ll nonetheless defend this little city till both I or it’s gone.”
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