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Following the Flames on Path of Destruction : Wildfire: Many frustrating battles were fought before the Calabasas/Malibu blaze was stopped.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tuesday, 10:45 a.m. -- Calabasas: It was one of those fall Southern California mornings that almost justify the astronomical cost of mountain real estate: 65 degrees, a cobalt blue sky and a full circle of nothing but green canyons.

Gemologist Robert Selman was working in his office, a ridgeline enclosure behind his house on Old Topanga Canyon Road. From this aerie, on days of similarly glorious weather, he had seen smoke plumes rising from the Altadena and Chatsworth fires. He knew it could happen here. That’s why, six months earlier, he had joined the neighborhood’s Arson Watch group. Fires might be inevitable, but he damn well wasn’t going to let some sociopath with matches start one if he could help it.

When Selman, 44, saw the first white puff, it was 100 feet away, along the hill near two beige water tanks on Mount Calabasas. Panicked, he looked for something to put it out. When he looked again, the fire was a caldron of flames, spilling down toward his house. He grabbed the telephone, but the line was down. Then he tried the two-way Arson Watch radio. “There’s a fire,” he told his contact. “Call 911.”

All became surreal for Selman, details disappearing in the smoke--details that arson and homicide investigators would later consider crucial.

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Traveling down Old Topanga, two off-duty volunteer firefighters from La Habra also saw the plume. They leaped out of their Ford Ranger and attached a hose they had with them to a nearby spigot as the blaze grew to the size of a house. With another onlooker, they tried to stop the unstoppable. “I immediately thought it was arson,” said one. “I don’t exactly know why.”

Authorities later agreed.

None had any idea that the small flame on that lonely ridge would cascade to the sea, six miles south, and over the next 30 or so hours char nearly everything in its path.

10:46 a.m. -- Topanga: At Los Angeles County Fire Station 69 in the heart of Topanga, Capt. Michael Johnson was uneasy, even with extra firefighters and equipment on hand. The Santa Anas were on a blow, and he knew a discarded cigarette, a hot motorcycle muffler, or worse--an arsonist’s twisted mind--could start the hills ablaze.

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In a snap, the devilish winds could transform paradise into the portals of hell.

When the alert came, Johnson telephoned for backup and in minutes was at the twin water tanks, where smoke was already billowing. The crew had just a small brush truck but, blasting water on the slope above the road, Johnson thought for an instant they might win this one.

But the winds seized control, and their shovels and water hoses were no match. “The fire went over us and around us. We couldn’t catch it,” Johnson would say later. “We were merely spectators.”

When electricity to the area was cut, art dealer Peter Alexander stepped from his home a few hundred yards down the hill and saw the advancing orange curtain. He fled up the driveway and ran into Ron Mass, 40, a carpenter friend who lived on the ranch. Mass was carrying a garden hose.

“Get the hell out!” Alexander shouted. Mass ignored him and ran up the drive. Mass ran into screenwriter-director Duncan Gibbins, 41, who also lived there. With the flames leaping closer the two men jumped in a jeep to dash to safety. But Gibbins hopped out in search of his beloved cat, Elsa.

The storm of heat and smoke engulfed the vehicle and Mass got out, stumbling toward Old Topanga, arms outstretched like a scarecrow, his clothes and face badly burnt.

Gibbins was trapped, and barely alive in Alexander’s pool when paramedics found him. “I don’t want to die,” he said over and over. Smoke poured from his mouth, and he talked in the terrible high-pitched squeal of a man with lungs scorched beyond repair.

“He’s gone,” paramedic Jim Goodwin thought. The two were airlifted to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, where Mass, critically injured, would make it. Gibbins, ultimately, would not. The deadly conflagration had claimed its first victim.

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Consuming chaparral and driven by relentless wind, the fire sprinted down the dry canyons toward Malibu and the sea, growing in destructive power.

11:45 a.m. -- Topanga: With the Calabasas/Malibu blaze racing down Zuniga Canyon and to the east toward hundreds of homes, firefighters won the first of many battles yet to come.

The firestorm was growing in three directions at once, south, east and west. Dozens of crews were now in position and hundreds more were on their way to the fire’s eastern flank on Old Topanga Canyon Boulevard. A few houses west of the road were catching fire and 30-foot flames were leaping across, threatening scores more. If it wasn’t stopped, Fernwood to the south and Topanga due east would be in trouble too.

Over the next few hours, the pumper trucks and firefighters formed a blockade along the winding roadway. Helicopters circled, ordering those below to get out--prompting residents to flee with whatever they could grab.

Yet each time embers flew across Old Topanga, firefighters were there, throwing down snowy blankets of flame retardant and water. By now, air tankers and helicopters were attacking the fire too.

There were some casualties: A huge greenhouse went up, and so did houses at the intersection of Red Rock Road. The dazed owner of one burned-out hulk asked strangers if they’d seen his pair of whippets. “I don’t care about the house,” he said. “It’s the dogs.”

Meanwhile, vehicles began clogging roads on both sides of the mountains--Mulholland Highway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the north and Pacific Coast Highway to the south. Firetrucks struggled to get through. Tensions grew and, for some, worry turned to tears as drivers eyed the boiling black cloud now visible across much of Los Angeles County.

On Mulholland Drive, a CHP officer tried to get a woman to move her car to make way for a firetruck. “I’m trying to move!” she shouted back. “Don’t you think I’d move if I could?”

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The firefighters saved Topanga Park, turning the head of the firestorm to the south and west. But by afternoon, it was blazing through state parkland and scrub-brush canyons, every acre of brush equal in power and heat to 5,000 gallons of gasoline.

Now it was moving as fast as a man can run. “This is it,” thought one fire captain. “The battle is on.”

12 p.m. -- Malibu Colony: With the pall of smoke five miles to the north already blotting out the sun, film director Paul Almond received a call at his Malibu Colony home. His daughter asked him to pick up his grandchildren from a nearby school. The teachers were panicked, but he was calm. “The fire’s a long way away,” he thought. “It won’t even get here.”

Then the flames were visible. Twenty minutes later, the fire had cut the distance in half. “I swear to God, it happened so fast,” he would recall later. “It happened like lightning. The winds were blowing like hell.”

By 1:30 p.m. a sheriff’s helicopter overhead was urging evacuations. An hour later, thick black smoke appeared at the end of the street and his son clambered up to wet down as many roofs as the water would reach. Almond loaded the car with his computer and his photographer wife’s prints for two upcoming exhibitions.

He wanted to be ready. But he wasn’t ready to leave. He hunkered down to wait it out. Firetrucks were virtually the only vehicles whizzing by on Pacific Coast Highway. By nightfall, thousands would be ordered to flee the fire’s path.

12:30 p.m. -- Stunt Road: A blackened, miles-long triangle now covered the south slope of the Santa Monicas. Along Stunt Road, nearly four miles from the point of origin and halfway to the ocean, James Volpi sat in his car, his escape blocked by flames. He dialed 911 on his cellular phone and reached Jackie Noel at the Ventura County Fire Department.

Noel tried to calm Volpi, telling him to seek shelter in a place that wouldn’t burn.

He got out of his car and headed toward his house nearby.

“Get a blanket, soak it and cover yourself,” she told him as he walked. “Take shallow breaths and, even if you feel like you’re on fire, don’t run!”

A Los Angeles County Fire Department rescue helicopter flew over, but the flames were too intense to land. “The fire is burning my house now!” Volpi shouted into the phone. “The fire is over me now!”

The phone went dead. Noel wondered whether Volpi was alive. An hour later he called back. He had jumped in his dry pool and stayed there for an hour as the flames swept past. He was uninjured. But he had lost everything.

In the next few hours other houses, both modest and magnificent, also would be destroyed along the roadways linking the eclectic enclaves above Malibu. But most were saved, by luck, a firefighter’s hose or a good dose of water from a helicopter. Tanker planes made dramatic runs through the canyons, laying down sheets of cherry-colored flame retardant.

Residents of Monte Nido and Cold Creek Road, on the western flank, would keep a nervous vigil all Tuesday night as the flames topped nearby ridges. Then, the fire crews began lighting backfires to consume the vegetation that might fuel the firestorm’s advance.

The worst of the fire’s fury was now headed for the coastal canyons.

2 p.m. -- Las Flores Canyon: The firestorm was on its way and engines were rumbling into the coastal canyons--Las Flores, Carbon, Tuna--to try to protect threatened houses. The wind had been calm for the past hour as the crew of Alhambra engine company No. 71 had driven through the ashen half-light, looking for a place to make a stand. Now it was picking up.

They parked on Castlewood Drive next to a rig from Burbank, between two hydrants. Engineer Kevin Stool thought they’d be safe. There were pools nearby, an emergency source of water. And a nearby bulldozer was a welcome sign that the ground had been scraped clean of flammable vegetation.

But no amount of preparation could protect Stool and the others from the oncoming fury. The houses on the northernmost streets of Las Flores began burning shortly after 2 p.m. Then, as Stool and the other three Alhambra crew members readied their hoses, fire was suddenly everywhere, raining out of the sky. A 70 m.p.h. wind drove the firefighters’ streams of water--and their screams--back in their faces. Three times a fireball passed. Then the truck’s engine died and the hoses went dry.

“Oh dear God, help us!” Stool shouted. “I don’t want to die this way!”

Frantic radio calls for air support drew no response. A burning car fell from the ridge above Stool, landing near another firefighter and exploding into flames. The rig itself caught fire and Stool tried to put it out with his gloved hands.

He closed his eyes to pray. And then the headlights of a battalion chief’s car shone through the ash and smoke, and he was whisked to safety.

In the next few minutes, many of the houses on the tiny streets stretching off Rambla Pacifico and Las Flores Canyon Road would burn. Although crews waged valiant battles to save them, many ran out of water and had to retreat.

One such wall of flame, at the top of Carbon Canyon, would claim the inferno’s second and third casualties about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Amy and Donn Yarrow, who enjoyed the luxury of the landscape while living in several modest trailers, were incinerated as they fled for their lives.

The fire was now hopscotching unchecked from canyon to canyon, to the west and to the east, scattering firefighters in its path.

8 p.m. -- Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu: Less than two hours after the start of the fire, researchers at the technological brain trust known as Hughes Research Labs were asked to evacuate, and to take their invaluable computer discs with them.

Don Enright was one of those who stayed behind. Hughes’ director of finance and administration, Enright thought back 23 years to the day when the great Malibu fire of 1970 swept past the building but left it mostly unscathed.

This time he worried the luck might not hold.

For two queasy hours, Enright and the gang of more than 20 volunteers--maintenance workers and researchers both--watched the flames surge this way and that like an octopus’ tentacles. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen when you see one of those fires coming at you,” he said to himself. “You don’t really know how she’ll behave.”

The fire made its intentions known at 8 p.m when it leaped Malibu Canyon Highway and headed straight for Hughes and nearby Pepperdine University, where students huddled in a gymnasium.

The blaze stayed on a ridge above the campus and kept running west but circled within 50 feet of the Hughes lab. The senior executive at the scene, Enright picked up a hose just like everyone else and started blasting.

The volunteers were not alone. They had help from several fire companies and from the fire crew at Hughes’ El Segundo plant. But every hand was essential. They scurried from one side to the other, as flames at times surrounded the 72-acre facility.

The skirmish lasted for three long hours. When the fire passed, some napped on the lobby floor while others kept the vigil. Most, like Enright, stayed all night.

Many at Hughes may never know how close they came to losing their building. But Enright, the firefighters and his volunteers do. “The crew that stayed behind here saved the lab,” he said.

Through the night -- Carbon Canyon: Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Tom Shoden, and thousands of other firefighters from as far away as Oregon, had a long night ahead. And his day had already begun much earlier.

At 3 p.m. he had been preparing to head to Topanga from the central command post at Fire Station 70, along Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Canyon. The fire, however, had rushed to greet him first and nearly overran the small station.

After firefighters beat back the attack, the command post was moved about three miles west to Pepperdine University. Then Shoden’s men and other crews sped back east, first to the scorched streets of Rambla Vista and then to smoke-filled Las Flores Canyon. Homes were ablaze and sending up flaming embers that scattered like pollen.

Now Shoden looked skyward, saw it was pitch-dark, and thought it was midnight. He shined a flashlight on his watch: It was 5 p.m. The smoke obscured the sun.

A few blocks to the south, county strike teams along Sierks Way just north of PCH were busy plucking people from swimming pools. Firefighters drove them to the relative safety of the Malibu Sea Lion restaurant nearby, then headed east to what would be the biggest standoff of the three-day-long fire.

The maelstrom skipped from canyon to canyon, the hundreds of strike teams alternately attacking and retreating. As Shoden’s crew sped along PCH at one point, Shoden counted the pumper trucks parked there. He stopped when he got to 75 and saw that the line continued into the distance.

By 9 p.m., his men had dug in at Tuna Canyon, where they were about to spend two superheated hours trying to halt the eastward march of destruction. As glowing orange cinders swirled around them, they heard radio transmissions crackling with news from other fronts; the fire had returned to the top of Tuna Canyon too, and Saddle Peak was burning again.

To the north, the community of Fernwood would soon be evacuated for the second of three times in slightly more than 24 hours. Then, the Santa Anas suddenly ceased and changed direction, powering the flames’ eastward march toward Topanga Canyon and the densely populated areas of Castellammare and the Pacific Palisades.

The crews would make a stand at Topanga Canyon Boulevard, forming a line from the ocean 11 miles into the mountains. It was the most important, and pitched, battle of the fire.

They set backfires, and lay carpets of water and fire-retardant foam. They fought with everything from hoses to helicopters. And not long after the sun rose Wednesday it appeared the worst was over.

County Fire Capt. Michael Dyer was one of those waiting for the walls of fire to come during the long and dark night. “It’s either gonna be the fire, or it’s gonna be us,” he said to his men.

Early afternoon, Wednesday -- Fernwood: This fire wasn’t ready to give up, however. Halted at Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the fire made a flanking maneuver to the north, right toward the rustic hamlet of Fernwood. Then it made a desperate dash to the east, finally skipping over the boulevard and toward the Palisades Highlands.

Fernwood residents were ordered out for the third time in 24 hours, and Casey Pierce, her ex-husband, Chuck, and her father fled once again. Their optimism was evaporating.

“I had the premature feeling that I wished it were over so that we could get started with the cleanup,” Chuck Pierce said later. The loss of his home, he thought, was inevitable.

But the firefighters were ready in the air and on the ground, not like the outgunned crew that had tried to stop the small blaze below the twin water tanks a day earlier in Calabasas. Here, there were so many trucks, it seemed there was one in front of every home. Air drops pounded the flames and smothered their advance.

Meeting with Mayor Richard Riordan at the command post, Deputy County Fire Chief Donald Anthony announced that the fire on the east side of Topanga Canyon was fully contained at 4:55 p.m.

“Well,” Anthony said, “I told you it wasn’t going to get away, and it did. But we got it.”

But the victory won by the 7,000 firefighters, the largest army ever assembled against a California wildfire, was tempered by the losses: 35,000 acres burned, more than 350 homes destroyed and three lives lost.

Times staff writers Abigail Goldman, Julie Tamaki and Timothy Williams contributed to this story.

The Scene at Flash Point

Things happened quickly Tuesday morning at the Calabasas/Malibu fire’s point of origin. The chain of events at the start of fire is shown below:

10:45 a.m.

1) Working in his office, Robert Selman notices puff of smoke 100 feet away, near the water tanks, and attempts to call 911. Unable to get through, he uses two-way radio to call Arson Watch.

2) Two volunteer firefighters notice the smoke, attach a hose to a hydrant and attempt to douse the flames.

10:46 a.m.

3) Topanga’s Fire Station 69 receives call. Brush truck arrives in a few minutes later, hosing hill below water tanks.

10:47 a.m.

4) Fire jumps Old Topanga Canyon Road, advancing toward resident Peter Alexander’s three homes.

5) Alexander calls 911 and the tenants of his two cottages, gathers some possessions and drives away from house.

6) In the driveway, Alexander sees tenant Ron Mass with garden hose. Minutes later Mass is badly burned.

7) Tenant Duncan Gibbins runs toward fire to rescue his cat and is fatally burned.

8) Gibbins jumps into pool before being rescued and evacuated by helicopter along with Mass.

9) Fire sweeps quickly southwest through canyons toward Malibu.

Source: Eyewitness accounts.

Researched by JULIE SHEER


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