Burned SUV sparked Corral Canyon fire

A predawn fire just west of the top of Corral Canyon Road burned 35 acres last Wednesday. It was sparked by a burned SUV. A Los Angeles County fire helicopter pilot spotted the fire that began at Castro Peak Motorway at 4:48 a.m. It was quickly contained and put out by the afternoon. Photo by Scott Palomar

Officials have no information as to whether the vehicle was set afire intentionally or if it had been reported stolen.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department arson investigators are analyzing evidence from a burned-out SUV found on Castro Peak Motorway after it sparked a fire that burned 35 acres of heavy brush on Wednesday.

Local schools were closed, and worried ranch residents living on Latigo Canyon Road said they felt hot Santa Ana winds blowing toward them as an ominous red glow lit the predawn sky early Wednesday morning.

“I ran outside and the pillars of smoke and flame were towering over the northern ridge,” said ranch owner Don Schmitz, who lives in the closest ranch house to the fire, two miles away from the top of Corral Canyon Road. “I was alone in a ranch full of animals and a house full of kids, miles from the nearest paved county road.”

Schmitz wrote to his worried friends in an e-mail that he activated fire sprinklers, filled up his water tanks and accepted the help of neighbors who took his children and animals into town while he waited for the fire, not knowing it had been largely contained early.

Firefighters credited heroic flying by Los Angeles County and city fire helicopter pilots, who worked in predawn darkness to prevent flames from spreading in the 35 mph winds.

The fire was spotted at 4:48 a.m. Wednesday by a city of Los Angeles fire helicopter heading back to Los Angeles from a major blaze east of Anaheim.

Six city and county helicopters began dumping water on the fire in the predawn darkness, a risky maneuver that is rarely attempted. That action, shown on live television, apparently succeeded in quickly reducing the heat at the fire’s edge and slowing its advance.

Unusual midwinter Santa Ana winds and bone-dry heat spread the flames quickly across approximately 35 acres of National Park Service land.

The fire was largely extinguished by the choppers. Two hours after it had started, hand crews began working in treacherous smoldering brush to extinguish hot spots, and carve a fire break.

But the lack of flames did not end the smoldering, which kept residents and firefighters on edge: “One big gust and those embers will start a fire that can burn straight to the ocean,” assessed Fire Chief Reginald Lee some six hours into the incident.

A burned-out SUV upwind of the fire, on the Castro Peak Motorway, caused the fire, said Information Officer Mark Savage of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Deputies said Monday they had recovered identification from the hulk, but had no information as to whether it was set afire intentionally or if it had been reported stolen.

Although the fire was located just west of the top of Corral Canyon Road, winds pushed smoke and the attendant fire danger southwest, toward homes along lower Latigo Canyon Road and in the Malibu Bowl area, five miles north of Pacific Coast Highway. Working from a staging station near Kanan-Dume and Latigo Canyon roads, fire hand crews laid a 5,000-foot-long hose connection between the nearest hydrant at Castro Peak and the fire site.

Dozens of fire trucks from the Los Angeles County and city fire departments, as well as a few from Ventura County, were spotted Wednesday scattered among the 100 or so houses in Malibu Bowl and along Latigo Canyon Road.

Some horses were moved out of corrals in that area as a precaution, and that road was closed between Kanan- Dume Road and Pacific Coast Highway, except to residents.

On Corral Canyon Road, workers quickly filled in slumping pavement at the chronic landslide site, and pushed barriers out of the way to allow residents and fire trucks a continuous two-way access and evacuation route. Earlier in the day, the one-lane chokepoint about a mile north of Pacific Coast Highway was the subject of stress and concern to residents of Malibu Bowl, who have no other access route.

Despite the excitement, no structures were within two miles of the fire, and the biggest impact was on Malibu’s public school children, who got a day off as school officials acted to prevent possible traffic congestion if large-scale evacuations were necessary.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sent 20 deputies from outside the Malibu area to assist the 15 deputies from the local office assigned to traffic control and possible evacuations. The deputies made quick plans to evacuate the city between Trancas and Puerco canyons, with persons east of Kanan-Dume Road headed toward Santa Monica, and persons west of that intersection directed toward Ventura County. Extra California Highway Patrol officers were sent here as well.

Fire equipment was being staged at the Malibu City Hall and at Rocky Flat, near Mulholland Highway at Kanan Road. Evacuation center preparations were at Bluffs Park, which was closed to public use and classes.

This fire was the second blaze in two years to hit Malibu after the traditional Dec. 31 end of the fire season. Like the Pacific Fire of 2003, this blaze was carried on unusual late-season Santa Ana winds.

Scientists at the National Weather Service have blamed an unusual high pressure system in the four corners region for causing a lengthy fall-like weather pattern, with winter storms diverted north to Washington state and frequent, mostly mild offshore winds in the Malibu area.