Malibu’s Worst Fear: Wildfire Repeats and Takes Devastating Toll
A full moon...a notorious mountaintop cave overlooking the Valley...and partying teens and young adults. Good times, until they suddenly went bad.
When a car went screaming down Corral Canyon Road at 2:30 a.m. or so Saturday morning, its horn honking, residents in the cluster of houses at Malibu Bowl a mile away may have thought it was just another load of idiot partiers. But it may have been a warning.
The worst fire in Malibu in 15 years swept down Corral Canyon Saturday morning, destroying 53 houses and damaging another 35 in just four hours. Some 4900 acres of Malibu were burned in the third brushfire to strike the city in 2007.
It may be weeks before a damages estimate can be tallied up, but given the nature of the 53 houses that burned to the ground and 34 that suffered serious damage, the final tab can safely be expected to exceed $100 million.
In 90 minutes, the fire had reached the houses southeast of the caves. At least 32 homes burned in the Malibu Bowl area, by 6:30 a.m. TV helicopters showed row after row of houses all fully engulfed.
A third of the 100 or so houses in the vicinity were all on fire at the same time, some of them having spontaneously burst into flame as superheated air swirled on 40 mile-per-hour winds.
Canyon residents describe an awful scene in the predawn darkness Saturday. Flashing lights and wailing sirens from sheriff’s vehicles, and pounding fists of deputies and neighbors, awakened several hundred people on streets off Corral Canyon Road, a dead-end ridgetop road, three miles inland from and several hundred feet above the ocean.
Their homes clustered in two hillside tracts had slim chances: only a few fire trucks could make it up Corral Canyon in the 45 minutes it took the flames to arrive. At least 32 houses in Malibu Bowl were destroyed before 7 a.m.; streets such as Lookout Road, Lockwood Road, Ingleside Way and Corral Canyon Road were hit hard.
Newell Road, where six Glendale firefighters were burned 11 years ago, was singed but spared.
As fire moved south down Corral Canyon Road into the houses at El Nido, a neighborhood builder with a pair of decommissioned fire trucks saved several structures. About a half dozen homes were lost there, as the fire’s eastern flank moved south towards Latigo Beach.
The southwestern tongue of fire, meanwhile, skirted the largest cluster of homes on Latigo Canyon Road, where it was stopped on a house-by-house basis. Of the 15 houses facing the fire front, not one was lost.
But on the ridge further downhill, five or six homes were burned as the fire crested the hill and burned all around Latigo Canyon Road’s switchbacks. This wall of flames then plunged several hundred feet straight down into Sycamore Canyon, and was finally stopped in the canyon bottom along Via Escondido, as Cal Fire trucks arriving from a state command post in Camarillo rolled in.
Burning embers rushed out a half-mile ahead of the fire front, claiming at least three houses within a block or two of Geoffrey’s Restaurant. As the day went on, it would turn out those were the last houses to be lost to flames.
At Solstice Canyon, a bridge repair project that left just one lane for all traffic on Corral Canyon Road was blamed by angry residents for causing downhill refugee traffic to back up while uphill fire trucks rolled through. Not so, said the county fire chief in charge of Malibu, Reginald Lee.
“I saw a lot of the residents of the area that was evacuated pull over and watch the fire, they were jamming the side of the road,” he told the city council Monday night. “If they would have moved on down we would have had plenty of room.
“Once we got down to the bottom, they stayed at the service station, which is our staging area, and started crowding us out,” he added.
Just west on PCH at Latigo Shores, the fire jumped the highway and singed the landscaping between the road and condominiums, but spared the structures. The heavily protected BeauRivage Restaurant and Union 76 station were surrounded by burning hills at 7.
Up and down at the coast, the brushfire again caught the city sleeping on a weekend morning.
Many people along the 27-mile coastline had no idea of the peril until they turned on the television—if their cable worked—or stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper, only to see the sky filled with a golden-orange glow as the rising sun caught the plume of acrid smoke.
Residents repeated the all-too familiar drill of looking at helicopter footage, trying to triangulate how far away the danger was from escape routes, and making plans to help themselves or their friends escape from fire.
Charter Communications, the city’s primary cable TV company, lost 12,000 feet of fiber cable early, again blacking out much of the city’s TV service and any Internet and phone connections to the outside world via the hapless system operator.
Although 53 houses were lost, hundreds were saved, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to move thousands of firefighters, hundreds of trucks and dozens of aircraft into Southern California was credited with saving Malibu. Trucks from Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area were among the first-in units last weekend, on the scene within two hours instead of two days.
On Sunday, Schwarzenegger stepped over crunched roofing tiles and through burned doorways, and comforted several families that lost everything. “We lost 53 homes—that’s the latest update that I’ve gotten—which is very sad,” the governor said. “We want to get those people back on their feet as soon as possible.”
“We had the trucks we needed, here at our disposal,” L.A. County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. He estimated that as many as 250 would have burned if reinforcements were not nearby.
“We lost dozens of homes, but it could have been up in the hundreds had we not had pre-positioned resources, at the ready,” affirmed Cal Fire chief Tom Barry.
At the height of the fire, as many as 14,000 residents had been ordered to evacuate, including some neighborhoods far from harm’s way.
Confusion reigned is some neighborhoods like Malibu Park, where sheriff’s deputies were broadcasting mandatory evacuation orders late Saturday at the same time that Point Dume and Paradise Cove residents were told to go home. Most point and cove residents had never pulled out in the first place.
By Sunday evening, residents of Corral, Latigo and Escondido canyons were allowed to drive into their fire-ravaged neighborhoods. Checkpoints ensured that only residents—and not looters or looky-loos—drove up the twisting canyon roads.
On Monday, two SuperScooper planes made drops on isolated pockets of fire, and camp crews were working on burning clusters of trees as late as Tuesday morning. One flare-up Tuesday brought trucks from as far away as the Civic Center groaning up the Latigo Canyon switchbacks, past smoldering ruins of mansions and modest houses.
The Thanksgiving weekend fire showed how well careful fire planning could work—and also demonstrated that one ignored factor could unravel everything.
Corral Canyon residents say their pleas for increased ranger patrols on State Parks land at the north end of Corral Canyon Road have been rebuffed for months. Corral Canyon resident Scott Palamar, who lost his house in the fire, had been exchanging letters and phone calls with chief park administrator Ron Schaefer about the parties and the fire danger.
Park rangers acknowledge that they could not patrol the ridge-top rave location sufficiently to break up repeated instances of lawless partying up there, and neighbors had been complaining for months.
The chief ranger Monday agreed that his staff was stretched thin due to budget cuts and hiring problems, and said his 15-member ranger patrol was down to six rangers and two supervisors.
“It’s hard to hire people down here due to salary and cost-of-housing issues,” he said.
Residents said they had been told only one state ranger is on duty at night to patrol the broad swath of mountain parkland from upper Corral Canyon west to campgrounds near Point Mugu, a drive that can take an hour. Schaefer said more rangers than that were on duty Friday night, but patrols go home for the night at 1 a.m., and raves can last until dawn.
Corral residents peppered officials with questions about why their pleas for increased fire patrols at isolated canyon party locations had gone unheeded; one angry person had posed that question at a Saturday news conference.
The commander of the Malibu-Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, Capt. Tom Martin, said “that particular area is state parks property, we do get calls from time to time and we do respond but that is primarily their responsibility.”
Schaefer said Palamar’s request for a fire gate at the north end of Corral Canyon Road was rejected, because “people would have just parked outside the gate and hiked in, and fire trucks would not have been able to get through all the parked cars.”
As officials totaled up fire damages and injuries—eight firefighters hurt, one of them with moderate injuries—others noted the fire season is just half over.
“We’ve got half of Malibu left to burn,” said City Councilmember Ken Kearsley Monday.