Bad day for fires, great day for surf

Times Staff Writers

The hills above them were burning, but it was the surfers who were stoked Sunday in Malibu. Waves were breaking perfectly at the famed Surfrider Beach. And for once, longboarders did not have to jostle one another to catch a great ride.

The closure of Pacific Coast Highway through the fire zone kept most outsiders off the beach. Locals were kept away by the evacuation order that emptied many Malibu neighborhoods.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” exclaimed Ken Rockas, a 56-year-old surfer from Santa Cruz. “It’s usually so crowded here that it’s dog-eat-dog on the water. It can be madness here.”

Not that Sunday’s surf scene didn’t have its moments. Fire engines raced past with sirens screaming, and helicopters swooped low overhead on water-dropping runs.

Embers rained down on the beach to the east, and a thick layer of brown smoke cloaked the seaward horizon.


“They were over there hosing down the Malibu Pier. The market down the road is on fire. It’s like a Hollywood set around here. This is totally not real,” said surfer Ozstar Dejourday, 50, of La Jolla. “But the fire is not chasing us out. The waves are just getting better and better. These sets are seven or eight football fields long. And look at the deserted beach. It looks like an island in Bali.”

While some surfers used back roads to sneak around roadblocks and get into Malibu, some were in town for a seminar on the certification of surf contest judges. That event was canceled because of the fire.

“My eyes are burning from the smoke, but I’m loving it,” said Cindy Sandberg, 54, also from Santa Cruz.

Lifelong surfer Bruce King, 59, of Oceanside, said he grew up in Malibu Canyon, where he went through three major brush fires. He said Sunday’s scene reminded him of the old days, in more ways than one.

“It’s like when I was a kid,” King said, gazing across the empty beach. “There are no people. It’s beautiful, just like it used to be.”

Lifeguard Capt. Merrill Riley said the pier, which borders Surfrider Beach to the east, was sprayed down by a Baywatch lifeguard boat as a precaution.

The Malibu Pier was closed. But to the south, the Santa Monica Pier and its beach were filled with people going about their normal routines -- and some were nervously watching Malibu’s smoky skies.

Peter Shenk thumbed through his iPhone looking for updates on the fire. The Pepperdine University alumnus used to attend Malibu Presbyterian Church, which was destroyed by the blaze.

“It’s sad. I’m reading and seeing which buildings were taken out and which might be burning. It’s just so sad to look over there and see the smoke and think about all the places I used to go,” said Shenk, 25, of Pacific Palisades.

As he called friends in Malibu who had to evacuate, asking if they needed a place to stay, Shenk said he saw many people who seemingly had no clue about what was unfolding a few miles away.

But others were aware.

Four friends from Mid-City said they went to the beach Sunday in Santa Monica to film a short love parody that they could post on YouTube. The group had heard about the fire on their way over, and debated how to include it in their film.

“I was telling my cameraman that maybe we can use the fire as some sort of symbolism,” said 19-year-old UC Riverside student Kevin Alvarez. “Maybe like a burning heart.”

On the sand, 10-year-old Sawyer Levy was volunteering and picking up trash with his dad, Allen, and younger brother, Mays. “I have friends over there and I don’t want them to get hurt,” Sawyer said.

As Sawyer moved along the beach with his trash bag in hand, dozens of others were sunbathing and riding the pier’s Ferris wheel.

“They probably care [about the fire], in a way,” Sawyer said of his fellow beachgoers. “It’s just that they don’t want to get too involved in it.”



The devastation is all too familiar

Malibu has a long history of brush fires:

January 2007: A brush fire whipped by high winds destroys or damages 11 seaside homes along Malibu Road.

January 2003: A wind-driven blaze, possibly sparked by downed power lines, damages three homes and forces the evacuation of scores of residences in Encinal and Decker canyons.

October 1996: A brush fire ignited by an arcing power line destroys 10 homes in Malibu, Calabasas Canyon and Corral Canyon, and burns close to 14,000 acres. Malibu’s estimated cost of fighting the fire is $1 million.

November 1993: Three people die when an arson-suspected blaze roars through Calabasas, Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Rambla Pacifico and Tuna Canyon, destroying 388 structures, including 268 homes. Damage is estimated at more than $219 million. Disaster relief costs for Malibu total $7.8 million.

October 1985: Two arson-caused brush fires in Malibu, one on Piuma Road and another in Decker Canyon, destroy six homes, causing more than $1 million in damage.

October 1982: A wind-swept fire travels from Dayton Canyon, northeast of Canoga Park, to the Malibu coast, destroying 97 homes and burning 54,000 acres. Estimated damage is $8.5 million.

October 1978: Eight almost-simultaneous fires destroy 230 homes in a series of blazes stretching from Malibu to Agoura and Mandeville Canyon. One man is killed, and damage is estimated at $71.4 million as 26,000 acres are burned.

September 1970: Ten people die and 403 homes are ravaged as several blazes combine into a single wall of flames 20 miles long, stretching from Newhall to Malibu. The conflagration chars 435,000 acres and causes an estimated $175 million in property damage.

Source: Times archives