Fierce Winds Spark Fires Across the Southland

Times Staff Writers

Fierce winds wreaked havoc across the Southland on Monday, fanning a brush fire in Malibu that consumed more than 1,500 acres and endangered multimillion-dollar homes as a series of smaller blazes torched four houses in the Riverside County community of Norco.

Gusts of up to 100 mph left a calling card of crushed cars, closed streets and fallen tree limbs across the region -- killing a San Diego woman out walking her dog and a Riverside man in his car. Up to 300,000 customers in the Los Angeles area lost power.

By late Monday, the Malibu blaze had caused minor damage to three houses and forced evacuations of scores of residences in Encinal and Decker canyons, not far from the Ventura County line.

The blaze caused some uniquely Malibu inconveniences as well: Laker star Kobe Bryant was among those affected when the blaze interrupted a Sprite commercial he was filming. Among the houses threatened was the compound of Maharaji, the onetime "perfect master" of the Divine Light Mission.

In the scramble to snatch precious belongings, some made California-centric choices.

"I have an extra leash for Penny, and I have my bikini," said Malibu resident Robyn Lynch, who also grabbed her dog and videotapes of her daughter, who was not at home.

Asked why the bikini, Lynch replied incredulously: "This is Malibu. If it wasn't for the smoke, it would be a great day."

At the root of all the mayhem was the wind, and few neighborhoods were spared. Southern California Edison reported 200 power poles had been felled by the winds, 29 along Live Oak Avenue in Arcadia. The poles were built to withstand winds of 90 mph.

By evening, some customers were being told the electricity might not be restored for days.

The winds were strongest in the canyons below the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, from Arcadia east to Redlands, and in parts of Orange County. Santa Ana, Orange, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, La Habra and Placentia were particularly hard-hit by outages.

In Orange County, several schools closed for the day. In the city of Orange, 47 power poles collapsed like dominoes, some held up only by tangled wires.

"It looked like a major earthquake or tornado had hit," said Jane Brown, a power company spokeswoman.

A motorist who was waiting at a railroad intersection at Batavia Avenue in Orange escaped injury when he ran from his car after a slow-moving train pulled down nearly two dozen power poles, causing one to wrap around his car, drag it several feet and flip it upside down in opposing lanes.

In Tarzana, winds knocked a tree into a house, sparking a fire with electrical wires in the attic, according to firefighters at the scene Monday afternoon. No one was injured.

Fallen trees blocked Metrolink lines in Irvine for several hours in the morning. Fifty trees fell in Pasadena, and in Glendale, six palm trees burned after power poles fell on them.

In Riverside, 52-year-old Donald Long was killed when wind-blown debris hit his windshield as he was driving.

In San Diego, an unidentified woman in her late 30s was killed by a 75-foot eucalyptus tree as she walked her dog in the Old Town neighborhood. Three amateur painters underneath the tree escaped harm.

In Yorba Linda, a 91-year-old pepper tree planted by former President Richard Nixon's father was substantially damaged.

The winds, which topped 100 mph in remote Fremont Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains between Orange and Riverside counties, were expected to last until this morning.

The Malibu fire, sparked by downed power lines, was reported about 9:30 a.m. at Trancas Canyon Road and Anacapa View Drive. It was Malibu's third fire since high winds started blowing Sunday night.

Driven by winds gusting up to 60 mph, the blaze first burned southwest toward Broad Beach Road along Pacific Coast Highway, jumping the highway at least twice. But prevailing ocean winds pushed back against the Santa Anas and turned the flames back toward the hills and canyons, fire inspector Edward Osorio said.

Late Monday night, two California Highway Patrol officers were injured when they were hit by a motorist while directing traffic at Kanan Dune Road and Pacific Coast Highway. A helicopter took them to local hospitals.

Embers flew through the air like slanting blasts of orange rainfall. At Pacific Coast Highway and Encinal Canyon Road, residents sat in their cars -- most of them BMWs, Mercedes and other luxury vehicles -- watching the fire chew through the hills above them. Others hosed down their houses or dragged furniture away from windows.

At 9:30 pm, flames came tumbling over the hill at Avenida Del Mar. In their path was a multistory home surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees. The only thing between the house and the flames were Steven Carter and his garden hose. Frantically spraying, he said: "I'm trying to save this house."

Smoke and ash were tossed in the night air on 60 mph gusts that threatened to send the blaze leapfrogging from ridge to ridge. Beyond the smoke, stars were visible over the Pacific Ocean.

Tina Hensley, who said she works as a personal assistant to comedian Ben Stein, said he had sent her into the fire area to recover his father's mementos. But firefighters turned her away, saying it was too dangerous. Hensley said she could see the house, however, and it appeared untouched.

Five hundred firefighters responded to the fire from as far away as Torrance and Ventura County, joined by a squadron of four water-dropping helicopters.

"The difficult part was that we had erratic winds changing direction throughout the day," Osorio said.

Also complicating firefighting efforts was some unfortunate timing. The blaze came about two weeks after the county sent its "Super Scooper" water dumping airplanes back to Quebec, Canada, under the terms of its contract.

Coastal residents have urged county and state officials to purchase the craft -- with their ability to gather up to 1,600 fire-quenching gallons of water in just seconds -- rather than merely renting them during the fall fire season. Monday's blaze may bolster their case.

"They have a contract for official fire season, which unfortunately this little fire didn't know enough to stay within," said Shannon Steere, 42, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker who lives on Trancas Canyon Road with her parents.

The Steeres' home burned to the ground in the 1978 Malibu-Agoura fire, so when the blaze barreled past Monday, they took it in stride. But for others, the fire sparked plenty of worry.

Escaping on foot were Mandy Hukkanen and her 12-year-old daughter, Aria. Hukkanen teaches at a nursery school that had to be evacuated because of the fire. She and her daughter had walked several miles through thick smoke to get away.

"When we were running through it, everything was black. The sky was black," Hukkanen said. "We were scared. We thought we were going to get burned."

In the 31200 block of Broad Beach Road, workers climbed onto rooftops and balconies of large homes, spraying down Sycamore trees and the plywood roof of a partially built mansion.

Residents said they were surprised that verdant grass and brush that looked so lush and healthy were in flames.

"Everything is so green here," said Nancy Vanotten as she peered through the smoke to determine whether her mountaintop estate survived. "But I watched this hillside in front of me catch fire 15 minutes ago."

The fire prompted neighborly deeds: Two carpenters who were building a house in the same area ran door to door alerting residents and offering to help as the fire jumped a ridge and began burning another canyon.

Alan Miller of Westlake Village said he and his partner were hosing down homes 40 minutes before the first firetruck showed up.

"The fire department came and said, 'Keep on doing what you're doing,' and said, 'Thank you,' " Miller said. "I was a little worried that we weren't doing any good."

Flames also took flight in Norco.

One fire that started in the Santa Ana riverbed near River Drive about 2 p.m. burned four homes by nightfall and sparked four other fires. More than a dozen houses and about 75 people were evacuated, along with countless dogs and horses.

By evening, the fire had closed a portion of Interstate 15, but it reopened later in the night and the fire was 50% contained by 10 p.m., with evacuation orders lifted. Norco bills itself as one of the country's largest equestrian communities. Virtually every middle-class ranch home in the fire zone has a backyard stable. Residents frantically loaded spooked horses into trailers and took them to nearby shelters, primarily the town's Ingalls Park.

"I've been in Riverside County 17 years," said Darlene Dixon, who helped evacuate 15 horses from behind one cluster of homes. "I've never seen it like this."

More than 400 firefighters from five agencies battled the blaze. But they stopped going to the riverbed to fight the flames after 6 p.m. because of darkness. "It's just too dangerous," said Riverside County Sheriff's deputy Dennis Gutierrez. "We've got to just let the fire die out."

An hour later, a shift in the winds spread the fire east, threatening a new pocket of homes and prompting the evacuation of several more blocks. Residents grew increasingly frustrated as fire officials blocked access to the area.

Edna Kellogg was attempting to visit an elderly, disabled friend who had been scheduled to join her for dinner Monday. When her friend was late, she glanced up from her cooking pot and saw smoke. She drove to check on her friend but was turned back at a checkpoint and told that her friend had been taken to a shelter.

"It still bothers me," Kellogg shouted over the wind. "This wind isn't that unusual for Norco, but I've never seen fire like this. And I hope to never see it again."

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Lee Romney, Andrew Blankstein, Kenneth J. Reich, Jessica Garrison, Peter Y. Hong, Kristina Sauerwein, Tony Perry, Janet Wilson, Gary Polakovic and Richard Fausset.

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