Deja vu: Malibu firestorm brings back painful memories of 1993 fires

The hills of Malibu beyond the pier on fire in 1993.

Malibu residents watched and waited hour after anxious hour as a violent firestorm blew through their community. Some were experiencing the heartache of a devastating fire for the first time, but for others, the sight of blazing hillsides, thick, black smoke and smoldering rubble is something they had seen many times before.

Pete McKellar, a Malibu resident for 49 years, was at his Country Liquor Store in the La Costa Beach neighborhood on Sunday morning when the fire broke. Just as he did in 1993 when another massive inferno tore through the area, McKellar kept his business in operation. Even without electricity, he continued to provide water and soft drinks for thirsty firefighters and snacks for sheriff’s deputies working overtime.

While many are tempted to draw similarities with the 1993 fire, McKellar said the situation is much different.

“There’s no comparison. That one started way back near the freeway so it had a chance to fuel and get rolling,” he said. “The winds were at a higher speed and more sustained. It came over the hill and in five hours 200 homes were gone. This is more protracted, but that was a real firestorm.”

Even as flames swept through the hillsides surrounding Las Flores, Carbon and Malibu canyons, McKellar was staying put. “I am not really worried,” he said. “I didn’t evacuate then and I’m not going to evacuate now.”

The 1993 fires, at the time, called out “the largest deployment of firefighters in the history of California…[and] the largest mobilization of emergency resources within a one- two-day period in the history of the United States.” There were three civilian deaths, 565 firefighters injured, 16,516 acres burned, 385 homes and 103 structures destroyed.

John Cosentino, another longtime resident, watched the smoke and flames from the bottom of Las Flores Canyon Road. Like many others in the area, he agonized over whether to stay or go.

“You probably have enough time to shower,” he said late Monday afternoon, “but I may leave in about an hour.”

Like McKellar, Cosentino remembers the 1993 fire well, but that doesn’t make things much easier this time around. “You get used to it,” he said, “but I still get the shakes. You still get those knots in your stomach.”

Cosentino whose family owns the Cosentino flower shops at locations throughout Malibu, had another sleepless night. “I was watching the news and had everything I was going to take by the foot of the bed. Right now my family is all split up, but it’s a great feeling to know that everybody is safe.”

Cosentino’s parents, Jo and Joe Cosentino, had a close call at their Coastview Drive home.

“They got hit a little bit. There was a cracked window and there was heat. The firefighters got to it, but their street was torched.”

Jan King is another resident who felt as if she was reliving painful memories of the 1993 fire. King, who lives in a small condominium complex on La Costa Beach, recalled how wind driven flames jumped across Pacific Coast Highway and consumed the Albatross House [where Duke’s Malibu restaurant now sits] just down the way.

“The flames were shooting 80 feet into the air and we were really worried about the gas station next door.”

While King’s home was spared during the 1993 firestorm, The Malibu Times Publisher Arnold York and his wife, Karen, were not as fortunate. Their Rambla Orienta residence was one of 359 Malibu homes that burned in the Nov 2 blaze.

York was busy watering down The Malibu Times building on Las Flores Canyon Road when he discovered his own home was surrounded by flames.

“I grabbed the dog and whatever I could — a couple of carpets and the papers you need for the insurance companies. It’s scary. You can rebuild a home, but you can’t rebuild your skin.”

When police and fire officials started calling for evacuations this time around, the Yorks found themselves back with the same friends who had taken them in 14 years ago.

“We are absolutely numb,” he said. “Just the smell of smoke makes you nuts.”

By late Monday afternoon, Las Flores Canyon was once again under a mandatory evacuation. Residents were piling up their cars and trucks with the things that matter — pets, photos and important papers.

Many were relieved to get out, but others derived more comfort in staying.

Said McKellar, “I’ve been through a lot in my life. You ride it out.”