Fire investigators Monday focused on a power pole swaying in strong Santa Ana winds as a possible cause of a 4,000-acre fire that began early Sunday in the hills above the state beaches along Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu.
The blaze destroyed a hilltop mansion under construction and two campground bungalows and threatened dozens of other homes and campsites in the rugged Sycamore and La Jolla coastal canyons.
The fire was contained at 6 a.m. Monday and declared out at noon. Fire crews continued through the day to search for hot spots and smoldering areas and were planning to return today.
The fire's cause was still unknown late Monday afternoon, said investigator David Gutierrez of the Ventura County Fire Department. But officials spent much of Monday examining the Southern California Edison Co. power pole on which the cross arm had pivoted in high winds, possibly allowing its three lines to touch and spark.
Residents whose homes dot the steep hillsides in the area told firefighters that they saw sparks shooting from the lines about 5 a.m. Sunday. Crews from Edison rebuilt the pole, which was set in a ridge overlooking Big Sycamore Canyon, about five hours later.
"I've told them for years that these lines should be underground," said Neil Rinaldi, who owns a home on top of a hill off Pacific View Road. "You know these things are bad."
Other neighbors agreed.
"Every year during these dry windstorms, the power lines come down and dance around the roads," said Ray Stinnett, who lives in a small hillside home with his wife Sandra and four children.
But Southern California Edison checked the lines last May and found them in good repair, Edison spokesman Kevin Kelley said.
Darkened soil and brush along Pacific View showed that the fire had raged within feet of homes. Rinaldi, owner of a Los Angeles pest control business, and Stinnett, a former singer with the rock group Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, were among the residents who hauled out shovels and helped firefighters throw dirt on the blaze as it swept through canyons and up hills.
At the height of the fire Sunday afternoon, about 580 firefighters from Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the city of Los Angeles and the California Division of Forestry battled the blaze.
Santa Ana winds gusting to 40 m.p.h. had dried out the already drought-parched brush on the hillsides. The winds fanned the fire all day Sunday.
But the winds subsided at dusk. Firefighters worked through the night to dig a line around the blaze, setting fires within the circle to consume brush and starve the fire. Pacific Coast Highway, where blackened brush now lines the roadside, served as the southwest fire line.
State beaches at La Jolla Canyon and Sycamore Canyon were evacuated Sunday, but by Monday afternoon, the recreational vehicles that ordinarily line the shore began to queue up again.
Some fire crews were diverted to four smaller brush fires and two structural fires in Ventura County. A fire in the hills above Rocketdyne in Simi Valley blackened 376 acres, while crews battled 10-acre and 20-acre brush fires in Thousand Oaks and Moorpark. A Newbury Park home was consumed after sparks from a fire in the fireplace ignited the roof, a spokesman said.
The big brush fire near the county line burned hot and fast, said Ventura County Battalion Chief Jim Spikerman. Some of the rugged canyon area's expansive hilltop mansions, with their 360-degree views, were spared in part because their owners had heeded Fire Department instructions to keep brush cleared at least 100 feet from their homes, Spikerman said.
"We would have had a whole lot more damage otherwise," said Spikerman, who served as a commander on Monday after fighting the Simi Valley fire Sunday night.
But the fire did not miss Camp Hess Kramer, a retreat run by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Two bungalows were destroyed at the camp, which had been evacuated.
Up in Flames
The fire also destroyed a $1-million canyon retirement home that William and Dorothy Allen had been building over the last five years.
"It's just sort of hitting us now," Dorothy Allen said from her Glendale home Monday afternoon.
"That was going to be our retirement home," she said, "sort of a retreat for our sons and their families. It was a Tudor. We've spent a lot of time in England, and we sort of had a vision of what we wanted. It looked so pretty."