Malibu battles three days of fire

The fire as of Tuesday evening was 75 percent contained. A total of eight structures were destroyed. Confusion reigned as downed cable and power lines hindered communications within the city.

By The Malibu Times Staff

Santa Ana winds traveling up to 80 mph, temperatures in excess of 90 degrees and single-digit humidity levels combined on Sunday to create a fire that has scorched at least 4,500 acres from Malibu Canyon Road to Las Flores Canyon and destroyed eight structures, including the Castle Kashan and five other homes, the Malibu Presbyterian Church and Malibu Glass & Mirror.

Webster Elementary School, located at Winter Canyon off Civic Center Way, suffered some minor damage, and will not reopen until Monday. Our Lady of Malibu Church, located across the street, lost two buildings, and will not be open until next week, or possibly later. All other schools are opening Wednesday.

There were three minor injuries; two Pepperdine University employees were treated for smoke inhalation Sunday at the Malibu Urgent Care Center.

The fire was reported Sunday at 4:56 a.m. off Malibu Canyon Road just south of Piuma Road. An engine from Los Angeles County Fire Station No. 70 on Carbon Canyon Road responded to the one-acre blaze. Downed power lines were found nearby, but fire officials say they are not certain if they were the cause or the blaze, or if it was ignited by something else and the fire brought down the lines.

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The fire quickly progressed during the morning, moving in several directions. It threatened Pepperdine University toward the west, and also moved toward the east on its way to the Carbon Canyon/Carbon Mesa area, consuming Presbyterian Church and the castle along the way. Patches of burned land and other structures affected by the fire could be seen throughout the area, including the nursery on the Yamaguchi property south of Malibu City Hall.

Power was knocked out in much of the area, including City Hall. Charter Cable service was also unavailable. Many residents complained that they had limited access to information because of downed power lines, no Internet access and no other way to get information from within Malibu. Verizon was able to provide service once power was back in certain areas.

There is an emergency radio station, WPTD- 1620, of which many residents and city government officials were not aware (City Manager Jim Thorsen and two council members did not know the call numbers when queried). In addition, many residents reported that information reported on network radio regarding evacuation instructions was wrong, causing quite a bit of anxiety and confusion. Pepperdine University, however, had a system in place where e-mails and phone updates were sent to students and faculty throughout the day.

“That’s what’s tough about this one, the communication is a problem,” said Councilmember Ken Kearsley.

Kearsley and other city officials manned the city’s headquarters, which was first located at Pepperdine University, but moved to City Hall on Monday after generators were brought there. The city’s Web site was updated with information and city leaders kept in touch with the Command Center, which was staged in the Civic Center area. More than 1500 firefighters from throughout the state were based in the area, as well as officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol.

Mandatory evacuations took place throughout Malibu, with 2,100 residents eventually being forced to leave. Evacuation centers were set up at Malibu High School, and in Pacific Palisades and Agoura. They were mostly unused, although residents and Red Cross members stationed at Malibu High said people had come by for information.

As the fire continued to grow Sunday morning, a portion of it traveled south, burning some of the Malibu Colony Plaza landscaping, and destroying a trailer on that property. The clock tower above First Bank & Trust was also damaged, as well as the roofs of the adjacent Starbucks coffee shop and Tola Life Spa. At least three homes on Malibu Road were damaged. The extent of the damage is under investigation to determine if the homes could be repaired.

As the day moved along, blazes on Carbon Canyon could be seen from Pacific Coast Highway. Firefighters, with the help of helicopters, worked to extinguish the fires as residents and media looked on.

“I’m from New York and this is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Pepperdine freshman Richard Shaw, who watched the action atop a car with several friends. “The only thing we [New York City] have are structure fires. This is mind-boggling”

Firefighters continued to work through the night and into the next day as the fire moved onto Rambla Pacifico and threatened Las Flores Canyon.

By mid-afternoon Monday, the fire was being held at Carbon Canyon/Carbon Mesa, although hot spots and embers, along with small blazes could be seen elsewhere. It had burned 2,200 acres and zero percent was contained.

“Progress has been made, but I want to emphasize that this is a very dynamic and potentially dangerous situation, said Los Angeles Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman at a press conference Monday afternoon.

That night, it was announced that the fire was 10 percent contained.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in the city in the late morning and toured the remains of the Presbyterian Church, and then held a press conference with city and county leaders at his side. Schwarzenegger declared Los Angeles County and six other counties experiencing fires, larger than Malibu’s, as disaster areas. And President Bush declared a state of emergency for Southern California to help free up federal aid for the areas affected by fires.

“The wind is our No. 1 enemy,” the governor said.

Throughout Monday-which was just as hot, windy and dry as Sunday-work continued in the canyon areas most affected. Other engines were stationed below near Pacific Coast Highway in preparation for the winds taking the fire south by the afternoon. This included the upper La Costa area, which experienced a number of destroyed home in the deadly and costly fire of 1993.

Overnight, the fire moved from Carbon Mesa to Piuma Road, and then toward Saddle Peak. While there, below the ridgeline, the winds coming from the northwest-which were not as strong as expected-faced the fire head on, causing the blaze to flip back and burn itself out.

“With the added placement of firefighters and crews doing their job at the top of the ridge, they were able to keep it from bouncing to the other side,” said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Edward Osorio. “The wind was favorable in that situation, but if left unchecked, an ember could have jumped over and created another fire.”

On Tuesday, the fire was limited to hot spots and embers scattered throughout the area. Firefighters continued to extinguish those, and braced for an expected Santa Ana wind pick-up that could ignite any of those areas.

“There is not a whole lot of fire to be seen,” said Osorio when asked about the situation in the early afternoon. “But we cannot say it is controlled because with the Santa Ana winds coming later today those ambers could flare up, and we could be back to the same problem.”

But by the afternoon, the winds did not create new blazes as feared. And the Santa Ana winds altogether had mostly died down.

The containment figure given by officials was 75 percent as of Tuesday evening. Containment means that firefighters have actually walked the perimeter and no hot spots are there, or even within 50 yards of the containment line. Officials are expecting 100 percent containment on Friday.

Gov. Schwarzenegger applied for National Emergency Grant funds for the ongoing Southern California wildfires disaster.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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