The Backstory of the Malibu Fire Photo That Went Viral

Stars such as Ben Affleck, Gigi Hadid and Pierce Brosnan all shared the same image of a giant smoke plume spreading over the Pacific Coast Highway on social media, but who took the infamous photo?
Cassie Denham; Samantha Klose/Klose Up Photography
Cassie Denham (inset) took this shot that went viral.

That photo of a giant Woolsey Fire smoke plume spreading over the Pacific Coast Highway? The one that went viral after Pierce Brosnan, Tom Brady, Gigi Hadid, Ben Affleck and virtually every other star with property in Malibu shared it on social media? There's a story behind it. 

It was snapped Nov. 9 when real estate agent Cassie Denham, 40, was fleeing the area with her husband, Grant, 36, and their 3-year-old son. Earlier that day, the Denhams evacuated their Point Dume home as the Woolsey Fire ravaged its way through their community. Packed in a car loaded with the only valuables they could grab (passports, computers, “just anything we could fit in a suitcase”), Grant tells The Hollywood Reporter they hadn't gone far when they hit PCH, which was a bumper-to-bumper parking lot, moving just inches at a time or not at all.

At one point when they were stalled, Cassie got out to toss a diaper in the trash only to turn around and notice a cloud of smoking pouring over the area. Acting on instinct, she snapped a picture of the scene and the couple respectively shared it on their social media platforms once they managed to snag a cellphone signal. 

“It was chaos. In a matter of two or three hours, the photo went viral. We stayed in Beverly Hills with family for the night and every major network and news organization had contacted my wife and me about the photo," Grant recalls of that day. "The photo was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Every major celebrity reposted it — It was so crazy.”

Perhaps crazier is that this wasn't the Denhams' first brush with catastrophe.

The couple moved to Bel Air in 2014 and had lived there for several years when, last December, they heard siren after siren going off in their neighborhood. The cause: a wildfire burning out of control not far from their home. They relocated to Montecito in January and weren’t even in their new place two weeks when massive rain storms triggered mudslides that engulfed their entire neighborhood. The only thing that saved their home was the 101 Freeway.

“It was complete carnage,” Grant says of that horrific scene. “We had two dead bodies at the end of our street. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mud was up to my knees. If we had been east of the 101 we would’ve been hit and lost everything.”

Then, in April they finally settled in Malibu where “life was great" until the Woolsey Fire. “How is this happening again?” Grant remembers thinking. “It was a lot of emotions, shock and disbelief. There’s no utopia anywhere in the world — you’re always subject to any kind of natural disaster."

Having the photo go viral in the midst of it all "helped in a way because it was a distraction to the emotions of possibly losing our home, and it helped bring awareness and funds to help those in need," Grant notes. The family has been holed up in a hotel in San Monica discussing their future and possible next steps — though potential neighbors be warned: "If we're moving next to you," quips Grant, "take out a good insurance policy."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.