AS 50-FOOT-HIGH flames raced towards the coast, Malibu mayor Jefferson Wagner was going through 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 have been doing—making ready to defend his own residence.
The November 2018 Woolsey Fireplace, Los Angeles’ most harmful on document—it could 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 dwelling 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 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 dwelling a couple of minutes later, nonetheless carrying the firefighter turnouts he stored readily available, he noticed smoke on the roof. “My coronary heart sank once 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 dwelling, Brown begged them to carry Wagner a ladder so he may save their dwelling. They refused, insistent they’d been ordered to remain put, a common requirement for metropolis firefighters throughout a wildland blaze.
With no ladder, Wagner started combating the hearth from inside his dwelling, 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 outdoors was all he may 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.
At 66 years outdated, Wagner is a 44-year resident of Malibu.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 dwell 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 hearth, Wagner is getting again to the enterprise of preserving outdated Malibu—his Malibu—identical to he fought to save lots of his home. And he’s doing his finest to ensure this combat isn’t in useless, too.
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 in, he popped awake and gave me his typical heat howdy and made a remark about catching up on sleep at any time when he can. He was visibly exhausted. And never simply bodily. Together with manning the surf store six days every 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 dwelling.
“I by no means had an actual retirement, I didn’t save correctly,” he says. “My retirement was my home. It’s purported to be a time in my life once I’m winding down. It appears like I’m beginning throughout.”
Wagner has change into significantly good at combing by way of the high quality 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 significantly 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 somewhat in serving to to drive extra community-friendly design by way of correctly worded rules. He’s significantly happy with Malibu’s distinction as one of many solely seaside cities in California to keep up a 28-foot top 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 must know the foundations to drag that off.”
Extra just 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. Most of the time, nevertheless, Wagner cuts a lonelier determine on the board. He was just lately outvoted 4–1 on a proposal that may restrict dwelling measurement to 11,000 sq. toes. “Subsequent factor you already know, you have got partitions for neighbors,” he says.
Being probably the most vocal naysayer to improvement is one in every of 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 truth, in Might 2018, simply 18 months earlier than the Woolsey Fireplace, Wagner’s dwelling 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.
Wagner really owns two properties in Malibu, his home and a condominium lower than a mile from metropolis corridor. No expenses have been filed.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” says Wagner. “I knew it straight away.” The raid occurred simply days after Wagner had voted towards a wage improve 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 gifted, however he will be fast to throw stones,” says hearth 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.”
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 may 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 at present. 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 seaside and listening to the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your toes,” he remembers. “That’s clear sand. In case you go all the way down to Surfrider at present, 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 below 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 one in every of Wagner’s fundraising occasions for a neighborhood park.
“I used to be constructing a repute as somebody who was honest,” 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 without end 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. navy throughout coaching workout routines, which is a giant a part of his earnings to at the present time. “My plan was at all times to only take the following job that paid nicely,” he says. “It’s a life-style.”
Someday within the late 1980s, Wagner was noticed by famend vogue photographer Bruce Weber. Seemingly in a single day, he was incomes $3,000 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 advertisements, and the cash he earned from the gig helped him construct his dwelling in Latigo Canyon within the 1990s. Throughout this time he additionally acquired married, however it lasted simply lengthy sufficient to welcome his solely youngster, daughter Ava.
It was within the 1990s that Wagner started to really feel that the officers working Malibu have been now not in contact with his Malibu. He ran for workplace in 1993 however didn’t make the minimize. Over the following decade, he remained lively 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 way more sources into his marketing campaign. He not solely received 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.”
In fact, turning into a metropolis official served solely to disclose to Wagner simply how contentious native politics had change into. It additionally forged a light-weight 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 era of change. It’s that deeply ingrained “outdated 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 somewhat 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.’ ”
THE ROAD UP into Latigo Canyon snakes its method by way of verdant countryside, already thriving after winter rains. There are groves of 200-year-old oak timber that someway escaped the Woolsey blaze with little greater than a sunburn. Atop a slender ridge and spilling over a steep hillside is the plot of land the place Wagner’s dwelling 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 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 outdated explosives Wagner had readily available for particular results. The explosives have been inert and innocent, however their labels had melted away within the hearth. Wagner, in telling the story, is clearly amused that it brought about such a stir. It’s additionally a testomony to how unfazed he’s by controversy—any controversy.
“In case you inform it like it’s—honestly and out of your coronary heart—you by no means must 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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