Los Angeles County fire engineer Scott Pishe stood guard outside several multimillion-dollar homes Sunday as air tankers and helicopters bombarded the fire-ravaged slopes of the nearby Malibu Canyon with fire retardant and water.
Earlier in the day, flames threatened to make a run into a chute by the canyon, but the aggressive air attack kept the fire there at bay.
“If it had gotten into that chute, we would’ve been in trouble,” Pishe said from the southeastern flank of the blaze, which had claimed two lives and forced 250,000 people to flee their homes from Malibu to Thousand Oaks. “All of that is because of the birds. The aircraft assault has been nonstop.”
While flames crept perilously close to homes Sunday, a squadron of 22 helicopters took advantage of a lull in winds to mount a vigorous aerial attack on the deadly Woolsey fire, saving homes and keeping flare-ups near Bell Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway within the fire’s 85,550-acre footprint. By Sunday night, containment jumped to 15%.
“Today was a better day,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told reporters late Sunday afternoon. “To date, as I stand here at this moment, it’s encouraging that none of the flare-ups exceeded the containment lines. This morning we were truly concerned about that.”
Despite Sunday’s gains, officials still fear that rogue embers could fly across containment lines. Officials warned that winds were expected to pick up over the next several days — forecasters predict gusts of 40 mph or stronger — and urged residents who were sheltering in place to evacuate as the fire could spread rapidly and erratically.
“Maybe 10 or 20 years ago you stayed in your homes when there was a fire, and you were able to protect them,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “Things are not the way they were 10 years ago.”
The fire has destroyed at least 177 buildings, and about 57,000 structures are still threatened. But footage from television helicopters seemed to show much more widespread property damage, and Osby acknowledged the number of structures lost will increase once damage-assessment teams can better survey the area.
Wildfires across California have scorched nearly 200,000 acres and killed at least 31 people in total in recent days, according to fire officials. The Camp fire in Butte County has left at least 29 people dead and all but destroyed the city of Paradise.
With destructive fires burning in both the northern and southern parts of the state, Gov. Jerry Brown requested a presidential disaster declaration early Sunday. Crews have been pulled into the fire fight from several states, including Washington, Montana, Idaho and Utah.
“This is not the new normal; this is the new abnormal,” Brown said Sunday. “And this new abnormal will continue certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years. Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify. We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life, so we’ve got to pull together.”
In Southern California, not everyone heeded orders to flee.
On Dapplegray Road in Bell Canyon, Greg and Alma Cwik instead used any tools they could find to fight flames on their own. When power was knocked out, they managed with LED lights. They used hoses and sprinklers, and when the water was shut off, they filled buckets with pool water to douse the flames.
“Firefighters were here, but they were very few,” Alma Cwik, 63, said. “They were here, but when the fire went to Malibu and Hidden Hills, they went there.”
At one point Friday, she said, the canyon beneath their deck caught fire. She and her husband began fighting the flames — in one photo she took of herself, she is holding a hose while a fire burns along the hill.
“They were very short-handed Friday,” she said.
“Seeing neighbors’ houses going up is crazy,” Greg Cwik said from his living room. “You couldn’t even see the sun, it was like night almost.”
Late Sunday, about 300 people who fled their homes packed an auditorium at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, where they gave a prolonged standing ovation for the firefighters and police officers battling to save their homes.
But the weariness was obvious. After several days, almost everyone was tired of staying in hotels, bunking in tight quarters with relatives or simply sleeping in their cars wherever they could find a safe place to park.
A groan went up about 40 minutes into the meeting when fire officials announced there was now a mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Calabasas.
Frankie Palmer of Malibu had to flee her Point Dume home with her family and their two dogs, but her house is safe and she’s been able to stay, relatively comfortably, with nearby family.
“We’re so fortunate that we’re safe and we don’t have to worry about hotel bills,” Palmer said. “I know not everyone has been so lucky.”
Bell Canyon resident Steve Kent found out his home was burning Friday afternoon — in real-time.
“This is not good,” a neighbor texted him. “The fire department is gone, and the smoke coming out of the chimney is darker and thicker.”
Soon after, his phone buzzed again.
“Your house is on fire,” the neighbor said, attaching a photo of flames bursting through the roof.
“The emotions we go through are horrendous,” Kent, 64, said Sunday. “From ‘I don’t have any socks; I don’t have any shirts,’ to, ‘We don’t have all of the pictures and videos and all those things that can’t be replaced.’ And so it’s overwhelming.”
He and his wife put everything they were able to grab before they left, such as their passports and birth certificates, into two suitcases. But neither of them were full.