Flames made what may have been their final charge in the Malibu area late Wednesday, racing down behind homes in Las Flores Canyon to challenge a diminishing army of firefighters--but the fire lost.
"The Malibu fire is history," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. John Price said late Wednesday night.
Although the wind kicked up during the afternoon, the two large Malibu blazes appeared to be nearing containment, while a massive Ventura County brush fire remained out of control.
Even that Ferndale-Wheeler Canyon fire, which a day earlier threatened the northern edge of Santa Paula and which had grown by Wednesday night to 42,000 acres, was less ferocious under the influence of 10-m.p.h. sea breezes. Only the fire's northeast segment was active, burning in the Los Padres National Forest.
No time for containment was predicted.
In the Malibu area, where the 6,500-acre Decker Canyon fire and the 4,500-acre Piuma blaze had left the hillsides a blackened mess, crews were backfiring in Las Flores and Carbon canyons in an attempt to score the knockout punch.
Until darkness, they were aided by four helicopters and eight fixed-wing aircraft dumping water and chemical retardants.
"A big dash of ocean air has helped greatly," county Fire Inspector Art Contessotto said Wednesday night after crews fought the latest surge of flames to a standstill behind homes along Rambla Pacifico in Las Flores Canyon.
Men and equipment were being released and a force that had numbered more than 1,250 was down to 250 for both fires, which are expected to be 100% contained by 8 a.m. today.
Early Wednesday afternoon, when the winds began to rise, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Gordon Pearson said, "Every time we begin to get a hold on it, the wind changes and it breaks out again somewhere else. The only thing that's guaranteed in this fire is change."
There had indeed been a change about 1:30 a.m. when, after an evening of relative quiet, the Piuma fire abruptly flared near Carbon Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway. Wind-blown embers swept across the wide highway to ignite the roof of a home owned by former actress Raquel Torres, 78, the widow of film actor Jon Hall.
The single-story home at 22350 Pacific Coast Highway was 80% destroyed, but Torres escaped injury when firefighters entered the house and escorted her to safety.
The Piuma fire had destroyed two homes and a plant nursery as well as two vehicles, including a $100,000 Bentley. The damage total was estimated at $750,000.
The Decker Canyon fire had destroyed two homes and badly damaged another as well as four guest homes, eight small buildings and three vehicles. Total damage, Pearson said, was $454,000.
Arson was suspected in both blazes, officials said.
Webster Elementary School and Malibu Park School will reopen today, it was announced by the Santa Monica-Malibu School District. School bus service also will resume for Malibu-area students who attend Santa Monica High School.
Traffic throughout the Malibu area was still heavily restricted Wednesday, with only residents and those on official business allowed through roadblocks.
In Ventura County, the big Ferndale fire was only 30% contained, but was no longer threatening Santa Paula. About 2,500 firefighters remained on the lines. That fire had destroyed five homes and several mobile homes as well as numerous outbuildings.
Inquiry Under Way
Its cause was under investigation.
Also in Ventura County, the Tapo Canyon fire, believed started by an arsonist northwest of Moorpark, was 90% contained after burning 10,250 acres. The Peach Hill fire, also believed intentionally set, was out after burning 4,500 acres. And the Hummingbird Ranch fire, which broke out after a car accident, was 80% contained at 3,000 acres.
The Box Canyon fire near Chatsworth was also out, having burned more than 1,000 acres. One home was destroyed and a man suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to save his house. Fire officials concluded that an arsonist had set the blaze.
In the Angeles National Forest, firefighters contained the 1,000-acre Mt. Gleason fire Wednesday afternoon. Full control is expected by 6 p.m. today. Authorities said the blaze erupted when a campfire got out of hand in gusty winds.
General Telephone Co. spokeswoman Meg Perry said about 185 customers still without service in the Piuma fire area should have it restored by this morning.
About 230 customers were still without telephone service in the Decker Canyon fire area, she said. Nearly 24,000 feet of heavy-gauge cable was being shipped in from all over the country to replace cable burned out in Decker Canyon itself so service could be restored there.
Another 435 customers in the Santa Paula area also were without telephone service and Perry said it will not be known how soon it can be restored until phone crews can enter the fire area.
The phone company had a cellular telephone in a van going up Upper Ojai Road so that residents could make calls, she said.
Times staff writers Leonard Greenwood, Nieson Himmel, Peter H. King and Herbert Sample also contributed to this article.