Remembering the ’93 fire

Firefighters work to control the flames as they rip along the west wall of Las Flores Canyon along Rambla Pacifico in 1993. Survivors reach out to victim's of the current fires. Arnold G. York / TMT

The all-too-familiar destruction that recent fires wreaked on Southern California brings back memories of a decade ago, and spurs help and dissemination of information on what victims can do to recover.

By Pam Linn/Staff Writer

As wildfires ravaged the Southland last week, it reminded many that it was just 10 years ago when a similar trio of firestorms hit Malibu, Laguna and Altadena.

This last round was surely the most catastrophic, the deadliest in California history. But the pattern was the same. Hot weather, high winds and dry brush fueled simultaneous outbreaks, straining firefighting resources. Inexplicable delays in deploying aerial tankers were again blamed for the conflagrations’ spread.

The fire on Nov. 2, 1993, that would consume more than 350 homes and claim two lives, raced from Old Topanga Canyon and Mulholland Highway to Pacific Coast Highway in a matter of hours, then fanned out and threatened homes along the beach and in the canyons for days.

Pacific Coast Highway and the canyon roads were closed by midday Tuesday, and Malibu residents found ingenious ways to get back to their homes. Anne Payne’s husband, retired Navy Capt. John Payne, hired a boat at Marina del Rey to bring him up the coast as flames threatened their Serra Retreat home. Realizing the skipper wouldn’t be able to dock at Malibu Pier, he “commandeered” a small raft, leaving a note that he would return it.

NBA star Vlade Divac, who lived in Pacific Palisades, was stopped at Topanga and made his way on foot to Las Flores to pick up his son, a student at Carden School.

“He walked in and got his son and walked back out again,” said Virginia Armstrong, who stayed with the school until the flames crested the hill.

All but one building was destroyed.

When the roads were reopened, hillside residents returned to a blackened landscape in a forest of chimneys. Like the victims of last week’s blazes, they sifted through the rubble of their

homes searching for anything recognizable.

In the aftermath, The Malibu Times publishers Arnold and Karen York, who lost their La Costa home, formed a group called Operation Recovery to help fire survivors organize to ensure fair treatment by insurers and government agencies. About 500 attended the first meeting at the Sea Lion restaurant only 10 days after the fire.

Now, Karen York, Margo Neal and Gretchen Hays, who all lost and rebuilt their Malibu homes, are sharing their experiences with survivors of last week’s fires in Ventura, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. The three appeared Thursday on the KTLA Morning News with advice for survivors and for those who want to help.

“It’s like payback time for what people did for me,” said Neal, who warns people who have lost everything to slow down and not make quick decisions.

“Let people do things for you. Accept what is given and ask for what you need. Make lists and purchase only necessities, things you need right now,” she said.

Neal and others got many of those necessities from donations to the Artifac Tree, which Honey Coatsworth closed to regular customers for four months.

“Operation Recovery brought us together to share information about insurance companies, about contractors, about all those things you needed to rebuild and for emotional support,” Neal said.

Hays remembers how nice everybody was to each other. Someone she didn’t know gave her a hug on the street just because she knew of the pain many people felt.

“People did special things to accommodate you. They allowed dogs in hotels because people had nowhere else to put them,” she said.

It’s important for fire victims to be willing to accept help.

“It was very difficult for me and some other people who are used to being the givers, to be

the receivers,” Hays said. “One woman asked me what I needed and I said I was scared my cats were going to scratch the furniture in the hotel. The next day she gave me a bedspread.”

York remembered that two survivors of the 1991 Oakland fire, which destroyed more than 3,000 homes, spoke at the first Operation Recovery meeting and distributed information and copies of the East Bay Journal founded (originally as “Phoenix”) to disseminate information. Later they would help set up the shopping center where those rebuilding could see samples and order everything from tile and fixtures to appliances.

In the past week, York and Neal have been interviewed

by Fox 11 News and by, explaining how groups of survivors can get organized. The most important things about Operation Recovery were emotional support and the power of the collective energy in collecting information.

“Through organization they can be a political entity to get their needs met with all the governmental agencies and insurance companies,” York said. “When you have an organization, you have mothers with small children helping other mothers, and older people helping other seniors.”

York said they’re sending documents to all the organizations outlining what you should do the first two weeks, what you can do for others, how Operation Recovery worked and an outline for contractors who are helping people rebuild.

She’s telling people, “You can’t be responsible for making decisions right now, your ability is compromised. Be aware of carpetbaggers who will descend on the area. They’ll promise you’ll be back in your house in a year. That probably won’t happen. And don’t sign anything without an attorney looking it over.”

Arnold York, who spoke last week to the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Riverside Press Enterprise, stressed the empowerment of organizing. At the first Operation Recovery meeting he was cheered when he vowed the group would put insurance companies on notice that they will be rated on a report card to be publicized at the end of the process.

“If we stick together, we’ll get done what we need to get done,” he said. “If we split into factions, concerned about our own street, they’ll pick you off one by one.”

The Yorks have created a speakers bureau of people who were active in Operation Recovery who will go out to small groups and help them set their agenda.

The group can be reached online at malibuhelps@ or by calling The Malibu Times at 310.456.5507, ext. 107.