As it roared out of the hills above Thousand Oaks and jumped the 101 Freeway, the Woolsey fire began a relentless march to the sea.
Between the raging front of flames and the water was Malibu.
The order from authorities to evacuate came suddenly about midday Friday, with all of the roughly 13,000 residents of the bucolic, wealthy town told they needed to leave before the fire cut off the remaining escape routes.
People flooded onto Pacific Coast Highway — a narrow, winding road that becomes easily jammed with traffic on a normal day. Officials struggled to manage the gridlock, reversing the direction of the northbound lanes to allow people to flee south away from the fire. Cars inched along, slowed even more by several traffic signals that went dark because of power outages.
Olivia Damavandi didn’t wait for the order to leave. She and her husband fled their home on Murphy Way in Malibu late Friday morning with their two children after deciding the flames had come too close for their comfort.
“I could tell that this is getting serious. You could just see the plumes of smoke,” she said. “I’m just in acceptance — glad my family is safe and everything is replaceable.”
A large cloud of smoke darkened the sky behind Quinn Kuriger, 22, as he crept along the highway. He had left his Calabasas home and found refuge at a friend’s place in Malibu. But the fire chased him, forcing him to leave again. He had been in the car for at least two hours.
Many chose to seek safety on the sand.
At Zuma Beach, crashing waves provided a dissonant soundtrack of normalcy as the salt air mixed with choking smoke. The water was hardly visible through the haze. Evacuees covering their faces with masks and clothes parked in lots typically filled with surfers and sun seekers. Some set up beach chairs next to their cars, resigned to the fact they were not going anywhere anytime soon. A couple embraced, watching the hillside burn.
Officials opened up the beach as a place to bring animals, and a menagerie of horses with masks covering their eyes, dogs and other animals added to the surreal scene. A pair of llamas were tied to a lifeguard stand. An owl sat in the sand.
Talley Hutcherson brought four horses to the beach, then drove to a second location to gather six more. At one point, Hutcherson, 57, abandoned her car to ride the horses to the shore with help from a friend. When she returned for her car, flames danced close by.
“This is the definitely the worst fire I’ve been through, and I’ve lived here almost 40 years,” Hutcherson said. “If the fire makes it to PCH, what happens? Where do we go from there? Closer to the ocean? Just set the horses free? I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight.”
Nearby, about 1,200 students were hunkered down at Pepperdine University. The students had been instructed by school officials to stay put on the campus, whose sprawling lawns offered a buffer from the flames.
Power had been out since morning at a 76 gas station along PCH, rendering their pumps useless and leaving people with a tough decision: Brave the congested highway and risk running out of gas or wait for the power to possibly be restored.
“I feel very worried because I have no gas or phone reception and I know it is coming,” said Maribel Palencia, 45, of South L.A., as she pointed to a smoke plume. Palencia had come to Malibu for her housekeeping job and her tank was nearly empty after three hours stuck in traffic. She was one of more than a dozen people waiting for gas.
On Zuma Beach, people could do little but worry.
Carol McNamara feared the worst for the redwood home she and her husband built 40 years ago.
“It’s so overwhelming,” she said. “There is no way I’m prepared if my house is burned to the ground…. We think we have control, but not over this beast,” she said.
McNamara coughed as ash rained down on the beach.
Jim McGowan, 60, looked to the south at Point Dume, a jut of land engulfed in smoke. Flames could be seen leaping out of the haze.
McGowan had left the trailer park on the point when the flames had drawn close and he heard explosions, probably from propane tanks.
He had packed what he could — some clothes, his wife’s engagement ring and his guitars.
Now all he could do was watch. “I feel numb. We have so many memories. We raised our children there.”
At nightfall, the hopes for McGowan’s trailer looked bleak. The fire had crossed PCH and spread into Point Dume. At least half a dozen homes were fully engulfed in flames.
A man could be seen outside of his home dousing hot spots. The fire was lighting up the hillside, the sound of the popping crackling through the air.