The Last of the Malibu Hillbillies

Millie Decker and the ring of fire.

  1. The wind was blowing through Malibu’s Decker Canyon on the day Millie Decker stepped out onto her back porch and heard the distant clatter of helicopters. Moments later, several wide-bellied prop planes roared overhead. Millie could not yet smell the smoke or see the flames, because the wind was at her back, but she knew that a fire was coming, and she was determined to fight it. She moved quickly across her property, checking the shovels and gunnysacks and barrels of water with which she would save her ranch, just as her extended family has been doing it since the 1880s.

    At 83, Millie Decker is Malibu’s dust-strewn memory. She remembers when Point Dume was just a grassy mesa, the Pacific Coast Highway just a rutted trail, and Malibu was home to more cowboys than people who played them in the movies. Millie has known her share of danger—taming wild horses, riding crazed bulls, detonating dynamite—but nothing has tested her nerve like the wildfires that periodically ravage the area. Like the one that was burning its way up Decker Canyon that day last January. But this time, something unusual happened: Millie’s son, Chip, called to say that she would have to evacuate; minutes later, a family friend named Kim Tipper arrived to escort her to safety. “I know you’re going to give me hell,” she told her, “but I have to do this.” Of course, Millie objected, said she wasn’t going, reminded Kim that she had never once fled from a fire. But when it was clear that Kim would not back dow...

Originally published in LA Weekly, July 2003