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 attempting to make it appear like he was. He was merely doing what rather a lot of Malibu residents had been doing—getting ready to defend his own residence.
The November 2018 Woolsey Fire, Los Angeles’ most damaging on report—it will 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 residence sits in a rural canyon about six miles up the coast from Surfrider Beach, 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 in the clear. But whereas inspecting his residence a couple of minutes later, nonetheless sporting the firefighter turnouts he saved available, he noticed smoke on the roof. “My heart sank when I went for a ladder and realized 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.
While driving previous a bunch of firefighters just a few hundred yards from their residence, Brown begged them to convey Wagner a ladder so he may 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 preventing the hearth from inside his residence, taking pictures water up towards the ceiling. But the roof collapsed, and one of the 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 may do to save lots of himself. His home burned fully, and he spent three days in the ICU with carbon monoxide poisoning and kidney harm.
“Firefighters used to be my heroes” is all that Wagner says now of the incident.
José Mandojana for Men’s Journal
At 66 years previous, Wagner is a 44-year resident of Malibu. He’s owned a surf store on the town since 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 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.
“People are fascinated, even fixated, with Caitlin Jenner or Miley Cyrus,” Wagner says. “But there is the rest of us.”
But now, in the wake of the hearth, 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 battle isn’t in useless, too.
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WHEN I STOPPED BY Wagner’s surf store in the future this summer time, he was slumped over, his head nestled into his arm on the counter. The retailer was empty. When he heard me are available, he popped awake and gave me his standard heat hey and made a remark about catching up on sleep every time he can. He was visibly exhausted. And not simply bodily. Along with manning the surf store six days per week and lobbying his fellow councilmembers to vote no on intrusive new developments, he’s been pressured to battle, like many residents, together with his insurance coverage firm, which refused to pay out on his destroyed residence.
“I never had a real retirement, I didn’t save properly,” he says. “My retirement was my house. It’s supposed to be a time in my life when I’m winding down. It feels like I’m starting all over.”
Wagner has develop into significantly good at combing by means 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 spotlight to element that has made him significantly efficient—and controversial—as Malibu’s mayor. Developers in the metropolis are infamous for attempting 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 relatively in serving to to pressure extra community-friendly design by means of properly worded laws. He is especially proud of Malibu’s distinction as one of the solely seashore cities in California to keep up a 28-foot top restrict on new buildings.
“For example, we didn’t stop the new Whole Foods from being built,” he says. “But we stopped it from being oversized. You really have to know the rules to pull that off.”
More just lately, Wagner, together with a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, helped scuttle U2 guitarist The Edge’s plans to construct a five-home subdivision on the bluffs above city. More typically than not, nonetheless, Wagner cuts a lonelier determine on the board. He was just lately outvoted four–1 on a proposal that will restrict residence dimension to 11,000 sq. ft. “Next thing you know, you have walls for neighbors,” he says.
Being the most vocal naysayer to improvement is one 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 reality, in May 2018, simply 18 months earlier than the Woolsey Fire, 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 Men’s Journal
Wagner really owns two properties in Malibu, his home and a rental lower than a mile from metropolis corridor. No fees had been filed.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” says Wagner. “I knew it right away.” The raid occurred simply days after Wagner had voted in opposition to a wage improve for a metropolis official. Today, Wagner will inform anybody who asks that it was retribution, even when that solely courts extra controversy.
“He’s talented, but he can be quick to throw stones,” says hearth captain and fellow councilmember Rick Mullen. “That said, he’s very reliable in voting for the right things—he’s been really true to his word.”
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BORN IN PALM SPRINGS, and raised in Calabasas, Wagner found the surf scene in Malibu as a boy. The first 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 Beach, 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 the ones for his surf store and for metropolis corridor. The first store didn’t final lengthy, although, as he closed it so he may sail round the world for 2 years.
When he returned to Malibu, Wagner cemented his place by opening one other retailer, the one he operates immediately. Throughout the decade, Wagner surfed, formed boards, slept on the ground of his store, and took showers utilizing the hose out again. One of his most vivid recollections of that point was merely strolling on the seashore and listening to the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your feet,” he remembers. “That’s clean sand. If you go down to Surfrider today, you’ll never hear that squeak again. I felt that right down in my soul. I knew we had to take care of this place.”
In the 1970s, Malibu hadn’t but been integrated as a metropolis—it was nonetheless underneath the jurisdiction of L. A. County—however the celebrities had been arriving in droves. Among 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 of Wagner’s fundraising occasions for an area park.
“I was building a reputation as someone who was fair,” he says. “But mostly just as someone who wouldn’t screw you.”
Meanwhile, 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. Over 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 half of his revenue to this present day. “My plan was always to just take the next job that paid well,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
José Mandojana for Men’s Journal
Sometime in 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 advertisements, and the cash he earned from the gig helped him construct his residence in Latigo Canyon in the 1990s. During this time he additionally bought married, but it surely lasted simply lengthy sufficient to welcome his solely little one, daughter Ava.
It was in 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 saved 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 gained a spot on the council however he obtained extra votes than any of the different 4 profitable candidates. “I had matured,” he says. “And I became more focused.”
Of course, turning into a metropolis official served solely to divulge to Wagner simply how contentious native politics had develop into. It additionally forged a lightweight on some of Wagner’s contradictions. Back in the day, he was thought of the outsider. Now he’s railing in opposition to the new era of change. It’s that deeply ingrained “old Malibu” ethos that feeds his legend, but it surely additionally makes him essential to the metropolis at a fragile time.
“The legend and the man have become a little inseparable at this point,” says fellow councilmember and onetime enterprise companion Mikke Pierson. “When Jay speaks, people either say, ‘I can’t believe he just said that’ or ‘Thank God someone finally said that.’ ”
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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 bushes that by some means 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 residence as soon as sat. With the particles removing practically completed, it’s now only a couple of empty terraces that look over a soot-filled swimming pool and a lonely tennis courtroom.
“They called the bomb squad on me the other 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 in 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.
“If you tell it like it is—truthfully and from your heart—you never have to look over your shoulder,” he says. “This fire might put me in poverty, but I will still defend this little town until either I or it is gone.”
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