Louis Hill was sitting on the porch of his Las Flores Canyon home Thursday when a firefighter rode by and flashed a thumbs-up at him.
"You're lucky," firefighter Keith Carlson shouted as his engine rumbled past.
But luck had nothing to do with why Hill was relaxing at his house when virtually all of his neighbors were homeless.
The 84-year-old mountain man had meticulously built his house on Las Flores Heights Road to survive the kind of fire that roared through the canyon three days earlier--the kind that had burned down his parents' home on the same land half a century ago.
Besides using fire-resistant plants and a non-combustible roof, Hill had built his own miniature fire station. It was made of concrete and equipped with a 100-foot fire hose, high-pressure nozzles, a gasoline-powered pump and valves connected to a 12,000-gallon water tank designed to never be less than half-full.
He had designed plywood shutters--complete with handles for easy carrying and labels to tell him which shutter went on which window--for his entire two-story, four-bedroom home. He had a dozen 50-gallon plastic trash cans scattered outside the house. Each was filled with water and had a burlap bag hanging on it.
Before planning his house across the canyon from a spectacular grove of oaks and about 500 feet above year-round, spring-fed Las Flores Creek, Hill read every book on fire safety he could find. He enrolled in a fire safety seminar conducted by one of Southern California's top wildfire experts. In class, he took good notes.
He had good reason to.
"My parents built a little cabin up here back in 1927 when I was a 12-year-old," Hill said. "I loved that place. But it burned down in a big fire in 1943. And that really drove home the need for fire protection for me."
Las Flores Canyon could not be more susceptible to brush fires.
Its sides are steep, fanning out from towering Saddle Peak down to the ocean. Santa Ana winds that whistle down the canyon each autumn are almost guaranteed to send brush fires that start in Calabasas or Agoura through the area.
Hill's 3 1/2 acres are among the steepest in the canyon. He has a small, flat pad for the house, which overlooks a shear drop-off. That means that fire in the canyon below is likely to shoot up the hillside like a rocket.
So Hill built his house out of stucco in 1978. He made its roof from concrete tiles. Its eaves were enclosed. All of its vents were designed to be shut at a moment's notice.
He planted fire-resistant cactus and coyote brush to stabilize the slope beneath the house. Ice plant was placed in flat areas that were not paved. He removed the site's eucalyptus shade trees and replaced them with fire-resistant fruit trees and grapevines. His woodpile was carefully positioned downwind from the two-story house.
When this week's Santa Ana winds kicked up, Hill and his wife, Lyllis, 69, began placing the shutters on the windows. Ground-level shutters covered the windows on the outside, but the upstairs shutters had been designed to fit on the inside of the glass so Hill wouldn't have to climb a ladder.
When the fire broke out Tuesday morning, Hill's longtime friend, Michael Tellesfson, 34, rushed to the canyon to see if the couple needed help. Tellesfson is a heating and air-conditioning technician who as a teen-ager helped Hill build the house.
When the smoke became too dense to breathe, Tellesfson urged the couple to leave. He stayed behind and started up the Hills' pump. When the fire roared over the house, Tellesfson ran inside.
"I checked the rooms with a flashlight for sparks. The wind was rocking the house. It sounded like a jet engine," he said Thursday. "I was shaking and praying. But in about 10 minutes, the main fire had passed."
Tellesfson ran out and used Hill's fire hose on blazing trees and brush. Where the hose could not reach, he used the wet burlap bags to slap out flames. For 10 hours he ran from place to place, putting out sparks and using up most of the water from the trash cans.
As hundreds of other evacuated Malibu mountain residents were returning with trepidation Thursday to see if their homes were standing, the Hills were confident.
"I would have been very surprised if it wasn't there," Hill said. "We tried to do everything right."
Wildlands management and environmental safety expert Klaus Radtke says Hill did things perfectly.
Radtke, of Pacific Palisades, is a former Los Angeles County forester who taught the 1978 seminar Hill attended. He is also the author of a fire safety pamphlet that has been distributed over the past 10 years to thousands of mountain residents.
"With his location, if anyone should have lost their house, it was him," said Radtke--who was curious enough to hike five miles up the canyon Wednesday afternoon to see for himself whether the Hill house had survived.
Canyon neighbor Wilmer Lewis, 78, stopped by to congratulate Hill on Thursday afternoon after returning to find his own home of 22 years destroyed.
"He did a good job preparing," Lewis said. "He came out smelling like a rose."