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WINDBLOWN FIRE RAZES OCEANFRONT HOUSES

Times Staff Writers

A wind-whipped fire raced through a row of multimillion-dollar homes in Malibu on Monday, destroying four oceanfront residences and a guest house, and damaging four more structures and several vehicles.

More than 300 firefighters were sent to battle the blaze, which was reported at 5:01 p.m. and charred about 20 acres around Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon Road.

The fast-moving but short-lived blaze began inside the Malibu Bluffs State Park, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Windblown embers spread below to Malibu Road and set fire to the homes along the beach, he said.

Malibu Mayor Ken Kearsley, who said he has lived through nine fires during his 40 years in the area, was driving past the blaze and saw flames 10 to 15 feet high blast south out of the park, pushed by 50-mph winds.

“It started 200 yards away and within 20 minutes, [the homes] were gone. The fire went to the beach.... It crawled up underneath one house,” he said.

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With the dense brush, the “elbow to elbow” homes along the oceanfront and the ravines along the bluff funneling wind and fire toward the homes, there was little chance of saving them, he said. Firefighters were forced to concentrate on containing the spread of the flames along the coast.

The only safe escape route was west along Malibu Road, known locally as the old Pacific Coast Highway. “We told everybody to get out.... People were getting out as fast as possible,” Kearsley said.

The cause of the blaze -- known only as the “Malibu Incident” -- was under investigation, with Kearsley calling the origin suspicious. Brush clearance around the area where the fire began is likely to be an issue, with the mayor and at least one resident questioning why some of the public open space wasn’t cleared more thoroughly.

The fire caused a massive traffic backup as officials closed major roads, including Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon Road. Residents trying to get into the area Monday evening reported traffic delays of an hour or more.

Weather conditions were particularly dangerous Monday afternoon for fire-prone Malibu.

Gusts in the area reached 40 mph and the relative humidity was 9%. In the nearby Malibu Hills, gusts were clocked as high as 56 mph about 5:30 p.m.

The combination of low humidity and continuing high winds today, although somewhat reduced from Monday’s levels, prompted National Weather Service forecasters to issue a red flag warning for much of the Southland into the afternoon.

By 8 p.m., officials said the fire was 100% contained, and the winds that blew the blaze to the ocean had calmed. One resident suffered from smoke inhalation but was believed to be in good condition at a hospital. In all, 30 homes were threatened with the residents evacuated.

The fire struck a section of the coastline known for its celebrity residents -- pushing some into action.

“It started big and hot and exploded,” said Victoria Principal, an actress famous for her role in TV’s “Dallas,” who was busy hosing down her house. “The wind was swirling. It moved so very quickly.” She said she offered people parking, food and water.

Fire officials didn’t release the name of the property owners who lost homes. But the stretch of coast has long attracted the rich and famous. According to property records, writer-director Mel Brooks and developer Donald Sterling own homes or once lived in the immediate area.

Robert Brown said his mother, a Malibu Road resident, called him about 5:30 p.m. to alert him about the fire. “I’m in trouble,” she said.

Brown, a West Los Angeles resident, said he raced to the house to find his mother standing in the driveway next to her Porsche. Her two German shepherds and two Maltese dogs were locked inside the car. She was crying. The houses on both sides of her home -- which was protected by a brush clearing -- had already burned down.

“We’re very, very lucky,” Brown said. “Our neighbor’s house to the left burned down.... Our house came out unscathed.”

The Malibu City Council was meeting in a closed-door session Monday evening when Kearsley was handed a note saying a fire had broken out. Council members immediately canceled a public meeting. Councilwoman Sharon Barovsky, who lives on Malibu Road, hurried out of City Hall to rescue her cat.

The burning homes were near the midpoint of the 2 1/2 -mile-long Malibu Road, which runs beneath the bluff along the oceanfront and is lined by about 60 to 70 houses.

The scene there was eerie late Monday as the fire died down. Dozens of firetrucks lined the mostly evacuated street where embers and ash continued to blow in the whipping wind as thick clouds of smoke drifted out to sea. Charred palm trees, frames of burned-out houses and one lone brick chimney stood along the devastated block.

“People who live in that area range from insurance agents and schoolteachers to billionaires,” Kearsley said.

City officials activated the emergency operations center at City Hall and opened an emergency shelter for residents at Malibu High School, but few, if any, residents appeared to be making use of it late Monday.

Firefighters squeezed through jammed roads to reach the blaze. About 40 engines were sent to the scene and were assisted by four helicopters.

Jorge Cicalese, a waiter at Beau Rivage, a restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway at Corral Canyon Road west of the fire, said he was driving to work from Santa Monica when traffic was diverted off Pacific Coast Highway and detoured through the Pepperdine University campus, causing a huge traffic jam. “The streets in Pepperdine are not designed for a lot of traffic,” he said. It took him about 50 minutes to drive three to four miles to the restaurant.

Students were sitting on the huge lawn at Pepperdine, “some even with drinks,” watching the flames, the lights, the helicopters and the firefighters. “It was like a show,” Cicalese said, “a spectacle.” He quickly added: “It was sad and unfortunate.”

Pepperdine officials reported no damage.

Longtime Malibu resident Alan Specht said he could see smoke and flames billowing from burning homes next to the beach about half a mile west of his Malibu Road home.

In the 35 years he has lived in Malibu, Specht has experienced fires, floods, mudslides and countless closures to Pacific Coast Highway, he said. “I’ve put my third patio on the beach. I lose one every time we have an El Nino. All I can say is it’s worth it. To live on the edge and smell and breathe the air and just look at the ocean is worth it.”

Early in the evening, Carol Moss was sitting on the ocean-side deck of her Malibu Colony Drive home, amazed by the weather. “It was an extraordinary night,” she said. “At the end of the day it never happens that it’s windy and hot.”

Then the fire exploded. “I was expecting this for a long time,” said Moss, 77, who has owned her home for 40 years but only lived in it full time for the past decade.

“I was out on the deck and we saw it start. It was incredible. Huge billowing flames. It was very dramatic”

It appeared to start about a mile up the coast from Moss’ house. “This is the time to see if your evacuation plans work.”

Moss said: “I wasn’t terrified.... The panic wasn’t very high. I’m a meditator. I said, ‘Breathe.’ Having those skills really helped.”

Wildfires have claimed hundreds of homes and several lives in the Malibu-Topanga area over the past three decades, while costing taxpayers millions in disaster relief bills.

A series of fires in October 1978 destroyed 230 homes as flames marched through Malibu, Agoura and Mandeville Canyon. The blazes killed one man and burned 26,000 acres.

Six homes were lost in an October 1985 fire.

In November 1993, the deadliest and most destructive conflagration in the region’s recent history raged from Calabasas through Topanga Canyon to Malibu. That arson-suspected fire killed three people, consumed 388 structures, including 268 homes, and caused nearly $11 million in damage to public property. The relief bill for Malibu was $7.8 million.

In October 1996, a blaze gutted 10 homes in Malibu, Calabasas Canyon and Corral Canyon. And four years ago this month, a fire damaged three homes and forced the evacuation of scores of others in Encinal and Decker canyons.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

bob.pool@latimes.com

Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Rich Connell, Mary Engle, Carla Hall, Paul Pringle, Jeffrey L. Rabin, Joel Rubin, Catherine Saillant and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

More on the fire

For information on evacuation shelters and road closures resulting from the fire in Malibu, go to the city of Malibu website, www.ci.malibu.ca.us or call the city at (310) 456-2489.

* Road closure information is also available from latimes.com; from the California Highway Patrol’s website, www.chp.ca.gov; and from radio traffic reports.

* School closures, if any, are available from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, (310) 450-8338, or by calling the selected school.

* As of late Monday, Pepperdine University, across the street from the fire, was advising students to remain on campus. Updated information about the status of classes at the campus is available at www.pepperdine.edu or by calling (310) 506-4000.

Source: Times reporting


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