Deadline Hollywood - David Robb
Hollywood has a new hero – legendary stuntman Jack Gill, who stood on his roof with a fire hose, surrounded by flames, battling to save his home in Agoura Hills, just across the road from the Paramount Ranch, where its famed Western Town film set burned to the ground in the deadly California wildfires inferno. And after he saved his own home, Gill and his family fought to save those of their neighbors. “I think it’s something that anybody would do if they had the right equipment,” he told Deadline — spoken like an action movie hero, and a real life one too.
The firefight was a family affair. He battled the blaze with his son Cody, a stuntman-turned musician, and nephew Carl Joyce, a pro tennis coach, who took turns with two hoses, pumping water up from the backyard swimming pool. (Watch the video below) “They’re strong guys,” he said, and couldn’t have done it without them. Gill estimates that 10 acres of his 12-acre spread were burned, including two railroad cars full of movie memorabilia, antique furniture, family records, and stunt equipment. He also suffered burns on his hands. But the house was saved, and so was the garage and guest house, where Cody had set up a recording studio.
In one frantic moment early on in the fight, Gill thought the house would be lost, and that the three of them might have to jump into the pool and hope they’d be able to bob up for air until the fire swept over them. “At about 20 minutes into the fire, I had just that fleeting moment where I thought, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna be able to save this. I’m gonna have to drop this hose and we’re gonna have to go in the pool.’ And I looked over to where Cody was and Carl were, because this one tree just kept lighting up and I’d spray it down and it just kept lightin’ back up. And if I couldn’t put it out, it would have caught the guest house on fire, and then we’d of had to have gone in the pool.”
“It was tough,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of movie fires, but movie fires aren’t anything like this. You just don’t know which way the fire is gonna go. And you can’t yell ‘Cut!’ and they turn it off.”
Gill, whose many stunt coordinating credits include The Fate of the Furious, Captain America: Civil War, Nocturnal Animals, Money Train and The Cell, was supposed to leave that Friday morning, Nov. 9, to fly back to Philadelphia for a stunt job on 17 Bridges, which his brother Andy Gill was stunt coordinating. But his brother’s house in Oak Park was in danger too. “I can’t make it,” he told his brother. “You’re gonna have to replace me. It looks like it’s gonna hit your house. I’m gonna stay and try and save your house.”
“So I went over to his house and got everything he valued out of his house,” he recalled. Fortunately, Andy’s house never burned, but in what he calls a “crazy quirk,” Jack now had all of his brother’s valuables in his home as the blaze barreled over the mountains headed straight at his own house. “I had everything he owned over here and luckily, we saved it all.”
The night before, Jack and his wife, actress Morgan Brittany, their son Cody, Jack’s sister Roxanne and her son Carl, stayed up all night watching news reports to see where the fire was headed. And when it jumped the 101 Freeway early Friday morning, he knew they were in trouble.
“I woke everybody up – they were dressed already – and my wife grabbed all the animals,” he said. “She got the bunny rabbit and the chickens and the birds and all the dogs and stuffed them in a car and took them down into the horse arena that belongs to my neighbor, Ruth Gerson, who is a real trooper. She has a huge horse arena down there with no trees around it. So all the horses were in the arena, plus my wife and all the animals. And my sister Roxanne was over there as well. And her son Carl came up here and helped Cody and I fight the fire.” And from far down below, Morgan and Roxanne could see their three men fighting the fire, silhouetted against the smoke and flames.
Jack had gotten the silver fire suit he’s seen wearing here while coordinating stunts on the 1993 miniseries The Fire Next Time, an apocalyptic story about fires raging in every major city. “I bought two of these suits to put stunt guys in and they worked while trees were falling all around them as firemen. And so I brought those suits back here and put em in a footlocker and that’s what I broke out to fight this fire.”
“But once the fire hit hard, the hood fogged up and I threw that off and then I had to throw off the gloves to start the second water pump and didn’t have time to put them back on,” he said, and over the course of the firefight, burned his hands. “It wasn’t a bad burn, but it would have been great to keep the gloves on.”
It helped Gill to have gone through this before – back in 1985 when another fire swept through Malibu and threatened the home of his friends Caitlyn Jenner and his wife, actress Linda Thompson, who was in Tennessee at the time.
Back in 1985, he recalled, “I knew the fire was going through Malibu, so I called him up and said, ‘What do you want out of your house if your house is gonna burn?’ And he said, ‘Get my Gold Medal, the baby pictures on the wall goin’ up the stairs, and that’s it.’ So I rode my motorcycle with my fire suit on all the way down to Malibu. I got through the police barricade, got to his house and found this pool pump and hooked it up to his pool and then stood on his roof, just like I did here at my house, and sprayed down all the sides of the house. Many of the homes around his burned, but only one side of his was scorched, so I kind of learned from that.”
After that, Gill bought two fire hoses and two pool pumps of his own, and has kept them in storage ever since. “I crank ‘em up just about every year, just to see if they work, but this is the first time I’ve ever really needed them.” And need them he did. He’d also put a sprinkler system on the roofs of his guest house and garage, and had them running “wide open” during the fire, but they wouldn’t have been enough without the hoses. “They’re not gonna put out enough water to knock down the kind of fire that came through this canyon.”
When the fire hit, he said, “Cody started on the roof wetting down the trees and when the fire broke over the top of the mountain, I traded with him on the roof because it was getting hot and Carl and Cody fought the left side of the backyard and then the front yard, dragging 200 feet of hose through the middle of the house, which is exactly what I did when I fought the fire in Malibu at Jenner’s place, and I told them to do exactly that.”
To get the hoses from the backyard, where the pool was, to the front yard, “We had to run right through the back door, dragging the hoses, and out the front door. So we went through the living room and out the other side – which doesn’t do a whole lot for your house. But at that time, I wasn’t worried about the carpet or the floor or anything else.”
Surrounded, the fire hit the backyard first. “The entire back of the mountain, from one end of my house to the other end of the house, was completely on fire when it came over the top, and the wind was blowin’ at 50-60 knots. And as we fought it, we had already wet down all the trees that were in the back, so when the fire got all the way down to the trees, it couldn’t burn them, and then it turned and went to the right of my house, and then down into this canyon and came around to the side. And then it wrapped around the front of the house and started comin’ up toward the tennis court and burned all the shrubbery there and tried to climb up and get the house, but we got that all out.
“And my nephew Carl, it got so hot there that he literally had to sit behind a glass door and spay at the shrubbery that was on fire right on the other side of the grass to keep it from getting the house. There was a whole lot of shrubbery right on the other side of this short piece of grass, and if that had gone up, the house would have definitely gone up.”
Another trick he’d learned “from doin’ fires in the stunt business,” he said, “is spaying down the house as much as you can because under the eaves, where it draws air, is where all of the embers get caught, and it lights the inside of your attic on fire and you never know your house is on fire until the whole top is burning. So we kept turning around and spraying the eaves where all the air sucks in and that kept them wet. So there’s a lot to do, and you’re pretty frantic, but we all worked as a team and it worked well.”
Then, about three-quarters of the way through the firefight, two firefighters came trudging up his steep, 800-foot driveway. “They walked up to the top after working 48 hours straight and they looked at me and said, ‘You guys have got real fire hoses!’ You want us to take it off of your hands?’ And even though these guys were dead beat, they took it off our hands for at least another hour and fought the fires while we rested for a second, and then we took it back over. But he was amazed to see that we had real fire hoses. He said, ‘I can’t even get the firetruck up here with fire hoses to fight the fire because you live too far away from the hydrant.’”
Later that day, Gill said, after they’d gotten the fires mostly under control, “My wife and sister came up with all the animals in the car. The firemen had already left and we were just puttin’ out the railroad cars, which were burning forever. And that’s when the big reunion was. Because she could see us from down there fighting the fires, she knew we were okay, and she could count heads. But once we all got together, it was kind of a moment of ‘I can’t believe we actually got through this.’ It was pretty emotional. Everybody was huggin’ and grabbin’ onto each other and seein’ if you got burned anywhere. You just wanna try and grab each other to see if it’s all still real or if you’re just dreaming.”
And now it was time for them to fight to save their neighbors’ homes. Jack’s daughter Katie and her new husband Jeff Hubbard had come over that day from Burbank to help out. “And they helped us keep the neighbors’ houses from burning,” Gill said. “The police wouldn’t let them into our area until Friday afternoon. We were all so tired that Katie and Jeff took over and put out the spot fires in our neighbors’ yards who had evacuated. The neighbors’ houses would have definitely burned if Katie and Jeff hadn’t gone to each house and put out fires.”
And over the next few davs, he said, “We slept in shifts every night to make sure it didn’t start again. The first night at 1 a.m., Katie and Morgan had that shift and woke me up to say the backyard was catching fire again. I had to jump up and crank up the fire hoses and put out a fire that was growing quickly in the backyard and almost caught the back trees on fire. As a family, I am proud of each and every one of them.”
The house was saved, but it sustained a lot of water and smoke damage. “There’s a ton of that,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’ll be before we get the smoke smell out of all the cars and the houses and all of our clothes and everything. When we first finished, there was probably a quarter of an inch of ash on floor of the whole house.”
And after it was over, Gill checked his phone and found several messages from his old friend, Caitlyn Jenner, who’d called to see if there was anything she could do to help. “The cell tower had been burned down, so we weren’t getting any of her messages until way after the fire was over,” he said. “We’ve been friends for 35 years, and I think just being over there saving her house is what helped me save mine.”
Gill was prepared, but he was also lucky. “I know a lot of stunt people whose homes were lost,” he said, “and it’s just devastating.”