by J.M. Stewart

A Rock Industry Insider Recalls the Malibu Wildfire that Consumed (Almost) Everything 

I miss the change of seasons in New Jersey. Transplanted here in Southern California, I must make do with Football Season, ’Tis the Season and the new TV Season. And then there is that other, more ominous, time of year: Fire Season. In a matter of minutes, it can turn you from a “have” into a “have-not”. For my friend Sue Sawyer (right), the November 1993 blaze that raged through the Malibu canyon where she lived swallowed more than just her home. It took a bite out of the joie de vivre she once had—the loss of which she is still coming to terms with today. In the early 1990’s, Virgin Records America was in its heyday, and Sawyer was its V.P. of Media Relations. Her clients included Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, and The Clash. Over the years she received many gold records from artists such as Cyndi Lauper, Sade, and Cheap Trick that she hung on her living room wall. Her five platinum albums from Michael Jackson had an inscription from Michael that read Dear Sue, thanks for the hard work. These also were displayed in her home. A triptych photograph taken in the early 1980’s, showed Sue sitting on a sofa with Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. Ozzy was promoting his first solo album, and a marketing meeting was set up at Epic Records. Ozzy walked in with a photographer, which was unusual; this should have been the tip-off for Sawyer that he had something up his sleeve (or in his pockets, to be exact). When everyone was seated, Ozzy produced a white dove from his coat, smiled sweetly at it—and bit its head off. He reached in his other pocket and pulled out another white dove and prepared to dine on that one, but the conference room erupted in protest, and the bird and everyone else in the room was saved from another unsavory spectacle. Although the photographs showed Sue’s expression going from Oh, what a pretty bird Ozzy has to utter revulsion, the triptych was exhibited on her walls to prove that, yes, this really did happen… I was there. The fire took everything. Sawyer’s “to die for” record collection? Vaporized. Her priceless collectibles? Incinerated. Early punk rock singles, including Elvis Costello when he was with Stiff Records? Up in smoke. A few charred 4×4’s, the bottom drum to her Weber grill, the blackened and ash filled carcass of her boyfriend’s vintage1967 metallic gold Thunderbird, the blob of melted coins from her piggybank, and the over-baked Halloween pumpkin that was sitting on the porch, was all that was left. There wasn’t even a place to hang the red UNSAFE FOR OCCUPANCY notification, so it was left under a rock. After the fire ran its course and Sawyer was allowed back on to the smoldering property, it was her incinerated books that she mourned the most. Everything that Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler wrote she collected. She had all of her childhood books, especially Winnie-The-Pooh, lovingly placed on bookshelves. “I would look at my books and it gave me a kind of a…hug,” she recalls. “I don’t have that now.” The literary collection was her treasure. Through the day-today roller coaster ride that was her job, those books provided a sense that everything was going to be all right.

It kept her grounded in a world of music icons and crazy, all-night industry parties. Sawyer has since acquired more books to fill new shelves, but the concertized connection to her younger, more carefree self was gone; as was the piano that she was more than proficient in playing. “When I was seven, I could play Rachmaninov in C sharp minor,” Sawyer says. She hasn’t owned a piano since she found the twisted remains of its soundboard nestled in the ash and soot of what was once her living room. “My house was completely gone.” The great Malibu fire of 1993 burned for three days. Sue Sawyer and 267 others lost their homes. Among her burnt-out neighbors were Sean Penn and Madonna, Ali MacGraw, Dwight Yokum, and Roy Orbison’s widow, Barbara. Three people perished in the fire, which was fueled by a combination of oil-rich and highly combustible chaparral, severe drought, and the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that roared through the canyon. In the first 10 minutes the fire spread from one acre to 200, and within an hour it had scorched over 1,000. It was about 20 minutes into the burn that Sawyer knew her house was in its path, and she had to get home to save her pets. Normally, there were a lot of meetings on Tuesday mornings, but she happened to be in her office with the television on. There was a breaking news bulletin about a fire sweeping toward the sea. “I knew this was no small deal by the way the newscasters talked about it,” she recalls. “And I knew my house was directly between the origin of the fire and the ocean.” The sick feeling that started to take hold of Sawyer was confirmed when a neighbor called. He told her he was evacuating and would take her Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, but she needed to come and grab her cats. Driving along Pacific Coast Highway toward he

r threatened home, she was struck by the surrealism of it all. “The ocean was glittery with the sun bouncing on the surface, and the sky was such a beautiful blue,” she remembers. “And then there was this huge plume of smoke going up into the sky.” There was a state-of-the art fire station with a helicopter pad just up the road from where she lived. Would her home be spared? She knows now that when an out-of-control fire is in the mood to burn, there’s not much you can do about it. She reached her home with minutes to spare. With two cats and one cat carrier, she ended up stuffing one in a pillow case and tossing both in the car. Then she bolted back into the house to save what she could. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon and the sky had darkened with soot. Ash was everywhere, inside the house as well as out,

and an orange glow was licking at the ridge line, edging ever closer. “I was rushing around sick to my stomach,” Sawyer says. “There was no rhyme or reason to what I was putting in the car. I grabbed a photo album, my skis, a computer, and bicycles.” “But not enough clothes,” she chuckles wryly. “Next time I’ll pack better.” There was only one way out of the canyon; if an ember had leapfrogged onto her escape route, there would have been no way out. She took one last look at her home and—still hopeful that this evacuation would turn out to be nothing more than a fire drill—thought, “This is going to be so much work putting everything back!” Sawyer retreated to her parents’ house in Simi Valley, where a friend phoned to tell her that the street Sue lived on was gone. Wow, she thought, I guess I’m homeless. The next morning, with the fire still gobbling up homes north of Los Angeles, Sawyer’s office phoned to ask if she would be coming in for the marketing meeting. Hey, that’s show biz! “I don’t have a toothbrush or any underwear,” she told the caller, “I think I’ll be a little late for work today.” A month later, Sawyer began her slow return from the weightlessness of the dispossessed. She was living in a rental home in Burbank and her friends and co-workers threw a surprise benefit party to help her pick up the pieces. “This outpouring of kindness was the best thing that happened after the fire,” she says. “These were not the wealthy people of the music business; these were the publicists and writers. The $50 checks that they gave meant so much to me. I still have the checks from the freelance writers. I didn’t cash them. They didn’t have a lot of money, and I still had a job. The irony was that those same people got hit by the [January 1994] earthquake a month later.” Sawyer has regained most of her zest. But part of that happy-go-lucky, young woman vanished that November morning. “I regret the loss of my books and my music,” she says. “And my love letters. I dated a lot of writers, so there were some incredible love letters. I regret that I didn’t really mourn what I had lost; I was changed by the loss, but I didn’t mourn it. I wish I had had some therapy, it would have helped.” From the ashes eventually there is growth. The élan that defined Sue Sawyer both personally and professionally was replaced with a “don’t sweat the little stuff” sensibility that has served her equally well. After a hiatus from the world of media marketing, she is working as an independent publicist for a boutique public relations firm in Los Angeles. And she bought another house, in Glendale, where she can hear her neighbors’ son practicing the piano. With a twinkle in her eye, she says that she would like to start playing again. EDGE