Winds drive Southland wildfires

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Thousands of Southern California homes could be at risk in coming days as powerful Santa Ana winds continue to stoke wildfires, fire officials said. Blazes on Sunday scorched thousands of acres from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara County, destroyed at least 39 homes and other buildings and killed at least one person.

Some of the worst devastation has been in and around Malibu, where the losses included two beloved landmarks; in San Diego, where at least one person died and 14 were injured; and in the communities of Agua Dulce and Canyon Country, midway between Santa Clarita and Palmdale. At least 25 buildings there were destroyed and 3,800 remained threatened by a rapidly moving blaze driven by winds gusting to 80 mph. At least four people were reported injured, one severely.

In Orange County, a late-developing fire that broke out in the area of Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads quickly swelled Sunday evening and moved toward the Portola Springs and Northwood communities. At 11 p.m., fire officials said they were asking residents to evacuate two of the most endangered neighborhoods.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller said winds were blowing between 35 and 45 mph and firefighters were making a stand between homes and the blaze. “The biggest problem besides the winds is the tremendous amount of people congesting the highways to watch,” he said.

In all, more than a dozen fires raged across the region, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. At least five firefighters were injured. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the affected areas.

It was not clear what caused most of the fires, but officials said downed power lines might be to blame for the Malibu and Agua Dulce blazes.

The Malibu fire, which had burned more than 2,200 acres, receded Sunday evening as winds died down there, but fire officials warned that it remained uncontained. “This fire is not over,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said in a briefing at a command center in Malibu. “We’re a long way from there at this point.” Firefighters probably would not be able to contain the fire before Tuesday or Wednesday, he said.

The fires around the region were stoked by Santa Ana winds that peaked at hurricane strength. They were fueled by brush and timber that flourished during the wet winter of 2004-05 then was seared by a record drought over the last year.

“This was a conflagration that we knew was coming at some point,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “We were cruising for a bruising.”

The National Weather Service issued a high-wind warning through Tuesday afternoon, and forecasters warned that wind speeds today could surpass those of Sunday. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca estimated that the fires would last five days.

The South Coast Air Quality District issued a warning that air quality in portions of Los Angeles County could reach unhealthful levels because of the fires and urged residents to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in smoky areas.

Roughly 1,400 firefighters from throughout California were battling the Malibu blaze.

“We are at the mercy of the wind,” said Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich after the firestorm had blown down through canyons and into the center of the seaside community, which is nearly as famous for its periodic disasters as it is for its $60-million homes, billionaire residents and priceless ocean views. Malibu last suffered devastating fires in 1993 and 1996.

Among the losses this time were Castle Kashan, an ornate, 10,000-square-foot hillside home that loomed over Malibu Lagoon, and Malibu Presbyterian Church.

Some Malibu residents spent the night at Red Cross shelters in Agoura Hills or Pacific Palisades. Authorities closed Pacific Coast Highway and other major thoroughfares, while officials canceled classes today at Pepperdine University and six schools in the Malibu area.

The Agua Dulce blaze, dubbed the Buckweed fire, began shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday and grew in just a few hours into a dynamo that had charred roughly 12,500 acres. The fire moved so rapidly that firefighters had to move their command center five times, retreating gradually to Santa Clarita.

In San Diego, the fires drew immediate comparison to the devastating wildfires of October 2003. The Witch Creek Fire in northeastern San Diego County burned much the same terrain as the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned for 10 days and claimed 15 lives. The larger Harris fire, along the U.S.-Mexico border, resulted in the only death reported in Sunday’s blazes, a man believed to be an illegal immigrant seeking to cross the border. The fire also left four firefighters and at least 14 civilians injured, including a 15-year-old boy burned over 70% of his body. One home burned.

The fire spread through an area that is a common path for migrants from Mexico, and authorities feared the death and injury toll would rise.

The Malibu fire began shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday, four miles up Malibu Canyon from the Pacific Ocean, then sprinted south down the canyon toward the coast and the hilltop campus of Pepperdine University.

Pepperdine, which has taken pains to buffer itself from brushland, was largely unscathed, although university officials evacuated students to a main cafeteria to make sure they were safe. There are 1,800 students and faculty who live on campus.

Cady Tolon, a 21-year-old senior at the school, which is affiliated with the Church of Christ, said she “grabbed my Bible, my computer and my homework” when she was evacuated from her campus apartment. At first, the mood in the cafeteria was grim, she said, but spirits lifted as it became clear the school was spared the worst. Students passed the time reading, playing Twister and praying for the safety of firefighters, neighbors and the university itself.

The big lawn on the ocean side of Pepperdine became a staging area for fire equipment and a landing area for water-scooping helicopters that headed out to the Pacific to fill their tanks and then sped over canyons to shower the flames.

Some of the worst damage was immediately to the south, in and around the famous Malibu Colony and Malibu’s commercial center. County fire maps showed that much of the area that burned Sunday had burned either in 1993, 1996 or both years.

The one exception was the area immediately around the Malibu Civic Center, which hadn’t burned in at least 20 years. Fire officials said, however, that there was no obvious difference in fire patterns between areas that had or hadn’t burned in recent years.

“All you need is just two or three years of brush to produce a fire,” said county Fire Department spokesman Mike Brown. “The age of the brush almost doesn’t matter when you have 50- to 60-mph winds that hinder firefighting efforts. And right now it is dry enough to keep the fires going. The rain from a couple of weeks ago wasn’t enough.”

Perhaps because of Malibu’s history, many residents took a long view about the damage and said they were just grateful that no one had died.

Sharon Gee, 74, who has lived in Malibu for 47 years, sat on a plastic chair with her adult daughter in front of a beachfront home they own and rent out. A veteran of five Malibu fires, she lives in a ranch house above Malibu, where she said she had swung into action before dawn, moving her horses, wetting down the house and then evacuating.

She planned to return later to keep an eye on the house. “We’re old sailors and we stand watch,” she said.

“We seem pretty casual sitting here, but I’m kind of a wreck,” she added. “I lay our fire hoses in April and May. Malibu has grown so much that the Fire Department can’t take care of you.”

Brian Gilmore, who moved to Topanga Canyon about a year ago from New York City, seemed surprised by the relatively laid-back attitude. That was especially true, he said, because he had survived an apartment fire in New York that killed two neighbors.

“You live in an area where there are a lot of fires, you become complacent,” Gilmore said. “People just roll with it. Until it’s on our doorsteps, we’re not going to worry about it. I’m more concerned than the average person because of my past history.”

On the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway, fire damaged a Ralphs supermarket and a CVS pharmacy in the Malibu Colony Shopping Center. The Malibu Colony, which straddles the beach, was evacuated, but no damage was reported.

On the inland side of PCH, the flames laid waste to Castle Kashan and Malibu Presbyterian Church. The castle was built in 1978 and loomed like a Scottish baronial estate over central Malibu. Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Dennis Cross said firefighters tried to save the home, but flames spread under the building’s foundation, leaving the fire crew with no options. A stone facade around the courtyard was all that remained.

Nearby, Pastor Greg Hughes of the Presbyterian church said he got a call at 6 a.m. saying there was a fire in the canyon and strong Santa Ana winds.

Hughes said he drove from his home near Zuma Beach and reached the church with other staffers about 6:30 a.m. A fire engine was already at the scene.

“There was thick smoke. I could hardly see anything,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies arrived shortly afterward and told them to leave. He watched on television as the church burned down.

Less than a mile away, both Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church and Webster Elementary School, which are close to each other along Winter Canyon Road, narrowly escaped.

Joe Lemonnier, 50, of Agoura, the owner of Malibu Glass and Mirror, next to the school, arrived at his business at 6 a.m. to find it engulfed in flames. He said firefighters made the decision to protect the school and could not help his business. He said he grabbed fire extinguishers from the school and aimed them at his one remaining trailer, saving it.

“It was so hot, it was just so intense, you can’t get near it. It’s going to mean a temporary adjustment, but it’s all just material. Everybody got out,” he said, referring to his tenants who lived in the rental property. “You think of a campfire being like a fire, but it’s not like that. . . it’s so much more intense, you can’t get near it.”

Among the other structures gutted was a home along Malibu Road. Its owner, Barbara T. Lindemann, said the house, built in 1927, was once inhabited by workers who built the railroad down the California coast. She said she has owned the home for 45 years.

Andy Lyon, a Realtor who helps rent the home for Lindemann, said it was worth $12 million to $13 million, and had burned once before, when singer John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas lived there.

“I believe that it was the last standing one of the original Malibu cottages,” said Lindemann, an attorney and expert in employment discrimination law. “It’s a piece of Malibu history.”

In Ventura County, the Night Sky fire, which started in the Lexington Community south of Moorpark, threatened some 250 homes and other buildings.

In San Bernardino County, the largest of three brush fires was about 300 acres near the Sierra Lakes subdivision in Fontana.

“That’s our wind tunnel for the Santa Anas,” said Tracey Martinez of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. Residents of about 500 homes were evacuated and one vacant structure burned, but authorities were hopeful they could head off any other damage.



Contributing to the fire

coverage were Times staff

writers Mike Anton, Julie Cart, Rich Connell, Christopher Goffard, Duke Helfand, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Steve Hymon, Rong-Gong Lin II, Richard Marosi, Tony Perry, Stuart Pfeifer, Catherine Saillant, Stuart Silverstein and John Spano.