The Rock Store Survived The Woolsey Fire. Now, It's Reopening
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One month ago, people living in the mountains above Malibu woke up to evacuation orders. The Woolsey Fire was devouring miles of forest and homes, including the hills around The Rock Store, a famous biker hangout that's been owned by Rich Savko's family since 1962. I spoke to him just after the fire swept through the area.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RICH SAVKO: It was just devastating - just devastating throughout this whole area. And we didn't have any time to respond, you know? I mean, it just came through so fast, and, you know, there's large ranches around here. They just had to turn the animals free, and some plots were saved. And just by the grace of God, The Rock Store is still standing.
SHAPIRO: Last Friday, I drove up into those blackened hills, a moonscape stretching ridge after ridge. Back before the fire, hundreds of bikers would gather at The Rock Store each weekend for a bite or a coffee before riding the twisty road called The Snake through the Santa Monica Mountains. On Friday, the restaurant had just gotten power back and was preparing to reopen.
Hey, are you Rich? Hey, I'm Ari.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ari, Rich.
SHAPIRO: So nice to meet you.
R SAVKO: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: Rich Savko's 90-year-old mother, Vern, was inside, sitting in a booth, drinking a cup of tea and looking at the workers buzzing around her.
VERN SAVKO: We'll build this better. Like we are now, see?
V SAVKO: (Laughter) The carpet's first.
SHAPIRO: There's a lot going on here. What's happening right now?
V SAVKO: They're putting new carpet in from the smoke and, you know, the ashes and that.
SHAPIRO: The Rock Store has become a kind of community center. It's one of the few buildings still standing around here. Even on Friday, with the place still closed, bikers came by for a visit. Keanu Reeves passed through. For the last month, emergency workers and neighbors have been coming by for coffee. Rich won't let anybody pay.
R SAVKO: It seemed really tough around Thanksgiving time, if you will.
SHAPIRO: Sorry, I know this is tough...
R SAVKO: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: ...To talk about.
R SAVKO: People obviously lost all their homes and things like that. And they sat out here and had Thanksgiving dinner.
SHAPIRO: Wow. Everybody just brought whatever they had.
R SAVKO: The guy across the street cooked a huge turkey and things like that. And, you know, people didn't know where to go or what they were going to do for Thanksgiving. But fortunately, we were able to light some battery-operated lanterns and then celebrate Thanksgiving.
SHAPIRO: After the fire, it was a gathering place for firefighters, too. They knew that if they had information they needed to share with the community, people could come by The Rock Store and spread the word. Brian Knutson is an engineer with the local fire department. He's 41 and says even the oldest guys hadn't seen a fire like this one.
BRIAN KNUTSON: The fire front was 14 miles wide and traveling 70 miles an hour.
SHAPIRO: I'm sure your head is spinning with memories of what the last month has been like. Can you describe one moment that you will never forget?
KNUTSON: It's hard to narrow it down to one moment to be honest with you. I think that everyone sees it on TV, but when you're - when you're in it and it's 10 o'clock in the morning and it feels like night because the sky is dark, it's a surreal moment.
SHAPIRO: You also live in this community that has now experienced a lot of loss. And what's that like layered on top of the extraordinary hours that you've been working and energy that you've been putting out?
KNUTSON: My home aside, it's hard to see the community the way that it is. You know, it's always hard to talk to someone that's lost their house because you - I - personally, I always feel let down. I'm like, I wish we could have done more for them.
SHAPIRO: His home has smoke damage, but it's still standing. One of the people who lost everything is 76-year-old Gary Jones. He's lived on the ridge above The Rock Store for decades. With a fat cigar in his mouth, he gets into a pickup truck that's been blistered by fire.
GARY JONES: We're all in here.
SHAPIRO: We drive up to see what's left of his place. The morning he tried to evacuate, he got trapped behind the big metal gate at his property line.
JONES: And the gate was locked, and it was on fire. And I couldn't push it forward because it - there was a hill there and it would have jammed the gate. So I called my wife to say goodbye and asked her to pray for me. And the flames were licking against the side of the car.
SHAPIRO: After about 10 minutes, he managed to force the gate open and drive through the black smoke and fire down the hill to safety. When he returned days later, the house was gone. Today, a tall brick chimney looms over a stretch of blackened stone where he used to live.
JONES: We've been doing some shifting, and I found my wife's wedding ring...
JONES: ...Some of her jewels. Turns out rubies don't melt.
SHAPIRO: And where are you psychologically and emotionally?
JONES: Oh, I'm excited.
SHAPIRO: You've gone through the grief, the loss, the shock...
JONES: Well, this is a blessing in disguise.
SHAPIRO: How so?
JONES: All by probably - you know, storage containers are full of decisions that haven't been made yet. And when you finally clear out the container, it has a feeling of cleansing. And that's kind of what I feel like. I've been cleansed. All the problems I had are gone. I had a...
SHAPIRO: You've got a few new ones, though.
JONES: I've got some new ones, but it's like, you know, everybody talks about turning the page of a book. And it's true. I'm turning the page of a book, but the book's getting more interesting. (Laughter).
SHAPIRO: Right now, he's waiting for a hazardous materials team to come sift through the rubble and authorize him to take everything to the dump.
One month after the fire, the signs of progress are still small. Little shoots of grass are just starting to poke out of the ashy soil. But on Saturday morning, for the first time since the fire, The Rock Store opened for business.
SHAPIRO: The smells of frying bacon, maple syrup and coffee cover up the scent of ash in the air. Ninety-year-old Vern Savko, who bought this place more than 50 years ago, looks around at her grateful customers.
V SAVKO: It's great to see everybody, you know? They were worried about us. So it's great. I cry every time I start - but we're here.
SHAPIRO: We're here.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we mistakenly say that the Savko family bought The Rock Store in 1962. In fact, they bought it in 1961.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.