MALIBU, Calif. — It's been two years since the Woolsey Fire tore through Malibu, including the remote area where artist Lita Albuquerque had lived for nearly 30 years. She can recount, with great detail, the moment she was finally able to come back to her property to see the damage.
"I just couldn't believe it," she said, looking around the plot of land that now sits empty.
Her house, her studio, her collection of 4,000 books, a lifetime of memories were all gone.
"This was our girls' house, downstairs," she said, pointing out where buildings used to stand, "and upstairs was my sanctuary."
But it was the art that hurt the most, she said. Much of her work from the past 50 years, her entire art archive, she said, was kept in storage containers on the property.
"You'd think they be safe, but everything in there burnt," Albuquerque said. "Like unrecognizable. Like evaporated. Like vanquished, and so that was really hard."
Time has passed, the rubble has been cleared, but Albuquerque's emotions are as raw and real as they were on that very first day.
"I've been seeing a therapist every single day since," she explained. "I am still traumatized. There's a lot of grief."
Albuquerque also has post-traumatic stress, she said. She didn't even realize how much until the fires in Orange County this week triggered something in her. She was on her way to Santa Monica when she heard the news, and she rushed back home to gather what little her daughter had been able to save two years ago.
"I didn't realize how terrified I was," she said. "I was literally trembling, and this is two years later, and the thought of losing everything again is still in me."
"The pain and the really post-traumatic stress that occurs as a result of these natural disasters is absolutely real," Kabateck said. "Whether it's fear, whether it's emotional distress. It's real. And it's serious."
But he adds that time is running out. On November 8, the Woolsey Fire's second anniversary, the statute of limitations will expire for filing a personal injury claim.
"After the two-year anniversary, those claims are going to be gone forever," he explained. "A lot of people might wake up on November 9, and they won't have exercised their rights, and they're gone.
Chris Abel, a spokesperson for SCE, said the company "fully cooperated with fire officials throughout their investigation." While they are not yet able to complete their internal review, "absent additional evidence, SCE believes that it is likely that its equipment was associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire."
"We keep in our thoughts all those who have been affected by wildfires. The devastating loss of lives, homes, and businesses is tragic, and SCE will continue to provide assistance and support to those affected," Abel said. "We have reached settlements with a number of plaintiffs in the Woolsey case, and the company continues to explore reasonable settlement opportunities with other parties."
Albuquerque understands why some may feel reluctant to go down another legal road. The process can be emotional and overwhelming, but she says she feels a little better now knowing she took that step.
"You have to have courage," she said. "A lot of courage. And a lot of deciding to move forward."
Nothing will bring back what was lost, but she is determined to rebuild her home, her life, and space she once considered her sanctuary, she said.