Black Sunday in Malibu: Flames from Canyon Fire Break the Dawn
• Powerful and Erratic Winds Dictate Where and When of 4400-Acre Blaze
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
Malibu dodged yet another bullet as 4400 acres of canyons and mountains from Puerco Canyon east to Las Flores Canyon burned this week, destroying just six houses and two landmarks, but filling the world’s television screens with yet another Malibu disaster.
The Canyon Fire will be remembered, perhaps, for showing that lessons have been learned from past conflagrations. Brush clearance, improved fire-safe building techniques and—most importantly—an aggressive deployment of firefighters saved the city, officials said.
Three firefighters suffered heat injuries, and the city was locked down under evacuation orders with school closures for half a week.
The first crew to arrive at the ignition point near the Malibu Canyon tunnel said high voltage lines had failed, sparking the blaze in 80 mile-per-hour, hurricane-force winds. The fire was already spreading east towards Rindge Dam and south toward Pepperdine University when the first crew rolled up at 4:55 a.m. Sunday.
The firestorm caught the city sleeping, the roads empty, and the conditions perfect for a conflagration as fire lashed down Malibu Creek on the east side of the road, and on its west side crossed two ridges to reach the Malibu Civic Center area within three hours of ignition.
A steep gully running down from the Hughes Research Laboratories into Winter Canyon carried the fire like an crucible—“flames were spilling down that arroyo like molten metal,” one firefighter said. That ignited the Malibu Presbyterian Church, the Malibu Glass and Mirror business and a house on Harbor View Drive.
The fire then spread sideways along the base of the hill just north of City Hall, and television pictures from overhead showed it turn back up the hill and engulf Castle Kashan, the faux palace owned by New York socialite Lilly Lawrence that towered for 30 years over Malibu’s heart.
Fingers of the fire branched off and around buildings, then reconnected as they blasted across Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu Colony. Patches of burning trees and brush swirled around nearly all the buildings within sight of Legacy Park.
City Hall was spared, but trees and the old greenhouses ignited around it, cutting power to the emergency center there.
Fire Captain Anthony Iacono’s engine was rolling in from Hawthorne past the pier and was dispatched to protect condominiums on Vista Pacifica Street, just off Civic Center Way.
“One guy ran down the driveway and said ‘my house is burning.’ so we put it out,” he said.
The fire had wrapped around Webster Elementary School and brush was aflame in all directions. “We couldn’t leave anyone there—they needed us at Carbon Canyon—so we took some thermal pictures, wet the whole thing down, and took off,” Iacono said.
By 10 a.m. Sunday, trees at the Colony Village Shopping Center had flashed over with flame, and only a heavy contingent of firefighters on the roof saved the Bank of America, CVS Pharmacy, and Ralph’s Supermarket from succumbing to the numerous spot fires popping up atop the fancy strip mall.
Soon, Ralph’s reopened, but at first only for firefighters. A running tab was adding up on the one register operating.
CVS was closed, and would also stay so for two days. A hollow clock tower tilted at a crazy angle, but firefighters said damage was limited to non-structural elements of the main buildings.
Incident Commander John Tripp said the fire had originally been expected to veer west after it hit the Pacific.
“Our original contingency was that this fire would burn to the west all the way to Ventura County,” Tripp said. “Think about all the people and houses there.
“The winds instead blew it to the east today. If they change tonight, it could be just that bad.”
But the fire’s westward momentum was stopped by bulldozers and handcrews working above Puerco Canyon. Its eastern flank, however, found fuel and winds and pushed around the northern side of Serra Estates Sunday, burning brush under the canopy of trees as far south as the one-lane bridge across Malibu Creek.
There, crews from several City of Los Angeles fire engines sent up from the Miracle Mile district used shovels and hoses to protect structures. None burned, and the wooden bridge was saved.
One mile south, two Baywatch boats kept a steady stream of salt water on the undersides of the venerable Malibu Pier as sparks and brands landed on top. State Parks Department fire trucks sat at Adamson House to protect that local icon.
In between them, two surfers tried the waves at Surfrider, which were blowing back in the gale. One of them secured instant TV fame by proclaiming “it’s too smoky to surf today” through his bandanna.
The fire moved east across Sweetwater Mesa, burning down to the McDonald’s restaurant, the Jakk’s Pacific Building and several apartment houses on Pacific Coast Highway. By 3 p.m. Monday, it had divided: north around Carbon Mesa, south along PCH towards Fire Station 70.
Flames laid down overnight, but just before sunrise Monday came roaring back. The northern flank pushed south down Carbon Canyon, going up a small rise to take out a historic house just uphill from the fire station.
Winds were blowing into the canyon from the northeast at 60 miles per hour, firefighters said, causing a vortex of wind to push the fire in the opposite direction, up to Rambla Pacifico. Worries about houses being cut off by the decade-long landslide road closure gave way to a slow moving fire, engines in every driveway, and calm as flames made their way uphill and around houses.
One Rambla family lost a Prius and a Mercedes in a garage as a momentary firestorm swirled. But the firetruck and crew stationed in the driveway saved the house.
Shortly after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s photo op at the Civic Center Monday morning, a massive blossom of fire suddenly developed at the top of Carbon Canyon, crossing Piuma Road north toward the Saddle Peak radio towers. The mountain looked volcano-like as smoke spewed thousands of feet into the air.
“The winds were blowing south up against that mountain top, and that stopped the fire from burning over to Calabasas,” said county fire spokesperson Kurt Schaefer.
By Monday night, activity concentrated around houses northwest of Los Flores Canyon, which were saved. Nearly 1800 firefighters were assigned to Malibu, prompting grumbling in inland areas where some people told reporters Malibu was getting more than its share of state resources.
“Those people are wrong,” said Los Angeles County fire chief P. Michael Freeman. “It’s not just who has the biggest mouth gets all the resources.”
Freeman said the Malibu fire broke out a full day before destructive brushfires erupted elsewhere in the county. “We have been here before and we know what fire in this area can do,” Freeman said. “We never hold things in reserve, that would be wasteful.”
The chief said he had 1200 firefighters in Malibu Sunday afternoon, and immediately shifted 400 of them to Santa Clarita as fires there broke out and exploded into houses. “The requests for crews up north were filled as they came in.”
By Tuesday morning, arriving crews from the San Francisco Bay Area had replaced Los Angeles County firefighters, who had moved east and north to new blazes.
Residents were thankful for the firefighting efforts by the weary men and women, sleepless and haggard after two straight days in the desert winds.
Gasoline and ice cream bars were sold out at Trancas by Monday night, and the sole grocery store still open in the city was running low on sushi, chips and less expensive brands of beer.
“That’s Malibu, they can’t cook but they sure know how to watch fires on TV,” marveled Kathy Ruddell, night manager at HOWS Trancas Market.
Some Pepperdine students were stranded at the PCH/Kanan-Dume signal late Monday, unable to get to their dorms. A CHP officer, not much older than the students, directed them to the Malibu High School Red Cross center.
In the school’s gym, 200 bone-weary and sweat-soaked inmate camp crew workers slept soundly on the wooden floor, lying atop blankets as the mercury hit 85 degrees at 11 p.m.
Some firefighters, however, were able to shower or sleep in the swanky new remodeled rooms at Malibu Beach Inn, where owner David Geffen threw open the doors to public service workers.
The scene Tuesday morning was dramatically different, with no smoke visible anywhere along the six-mile-wide fire. Firefighters shifted to mop-up mode, helicopters were parked to await flare-ups, and damage assessments began at the Civic Center.
Fire staffing at Malibu was cut to 898, with the remainder sent to San Diego or the Lake Arrowhead area, and full containment was predicted for the Canyon Fire on Friday.
Public facilities were not significantly damaged, Webster Elementary School appeared hardest hit, as principal Phil Cott stood next to a row of charred palm trees Tuesday.
“These big palm trees might fall now, might need to be cut down, or maybe they’re OK here and will grow back,” Cott said. “We have a lot of painting to do, and one teacher is going to have to move her classroom.
A modular classroom that housed a 45-station computer lab, and another holding a teacher preparation area, were lost to fire at Our Lady of Malibu parochial school in Winter Canyon, the school announced Tuesday night.
The two buildings are partially insured, and reconstruction will begin Thursday, said co-principal Susan Richey.
She said flames “burned right up to the classrooms on campus that have been there 47 years, but they weren’t touched.
“But it took out the trailers that were behind the school, that housed the computer lab.”
The school will remain closed until at least next Monday.
Across the street, Webster Elementary will also remain closed through Monday. All other public schools in Malibu resumed classes on Wednesday.