Wilfires strike Malibu again | VailDaily.com

Wilfires strike Malibu again

Robert Jablon

MALIBU, Calif. – Blue ocean. Burned hills.The view from Latigo Canyon was dramatic, but Gerry Wersh and girlfriend Laura Bevitz had no time to take it in as they used shovels to bury hot embers from the fire that swept close to Wersh’s home early Saturday.”It was like a wall, a solid wall,” Wersh, 46, said of the 75-foot-high flames driven by Santa Ana winds.”I tell you there was one point where I thought it was gone,” Wersh said as singed rock and smoldering logs littered the road in front of his still-standing home and clumps of brush continued to burn nearby.But they were the lucky ones after flames raced through the canyons and mountains of Malibu for the second time in little more than a month.An estimated 35 homes were destroyed and 10,000 to 14,000 people evacuated, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.The fire erupted shortly before 3:30 a.m. after long-predicted Santa Ana winds finally arrived, and it quickly grew before the winds died down. By midafternoon it was estimated at 4,500 acres, or about 7 square miles, with 25 percent containment.”Waking up at 4 in the morning with the smell of smoke in your nose and the wind beating at the windows is something that we learn to live with here, but it always comes as something of a shock,” said Mayor Jeff Jennings.Fifteen helicopters and 15 airplanes, including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jumbo jet, attacked from the air, while 1,700 firefighters battled flames on the ground. One firefighter suffered an unspecified moderate injury, and five others suffered minor injuries.No loss of life”It’s great to be able to say that we have no loss of lives,” Jennings said.Helicopters lowered hoses into pools and the nearby Pacific to refill their tanks for water-dropping runs, and SuperScooper amphibious airplanes skimmed the ocean to reload.Hundreds of firefighters and equipment from throughout the state had been positioned in Southern California for most of the week because of the winds, which had been expected to blow most of the week but didn’t arrive until late Friday.Officials remained wary despite the decrease in wind speed.The mayor urged residents to “listen to your radios, go outside and see which way the wind is blowing. Stay alert. Stay vigilant.”The Malibu fire broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway and there did not appear to be power lines in the area, Freeman said. Investigators were trying to determine the cause, he said.Another fire broke out Saturday morning in San Diego County near the town of Ramona and was 40 percent contained after burning 50 acres, said Roxanne Provanik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.Power lines blown down by fierce winds caused last month’s fire in Malibu, which destroyed six homes, two businesses and a church. That blaze was part of siege of more than 15 Santa Ana-stoked wildfires that destroyed more than 2,000 homes, killed 14 people and blackened a total of 809 square miles from Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.Santa Anas, triggered by high pressure over the Great Basin, blow into Southern California from the north and northeast, racing down through the canyons and passes of the region’s east-west mountain ranges and out to sea, pushing back the normal flow of moist ocean air.Malibu, with homes tucked into deep, narrow canyons along 27 miles of coast at the southern foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, is prone to Santa Ana-driven wildfires. One blaze in 1993 destroyed 388 structures, including 268 homes, and killed three people.Saturday’s fire burned to the west of the portions of Malibu that burned in October.Neighbors help one anotherNeighbors alerted one another, while authorities drove through Corral Canyon, a neighborhood of about 350 homes, telling people to leave.Meredith Lobel-Angel, 51, and her husband Frank Angel, 54, said they had seen numerous fires threaten their split-level stucco home over the past decade. This time they had 15 minutes to leave and managed to take little but some clothes and their laptops.”I ran out on the deck, and I just saw a little fire and smoke up the canyon on the ridge (about a mile away),” Frank Angel said. “By the time we evacuated it was already over the ridge. It spread faster than I’ve ever seen it.”Carol Stoddard, 48, had already heard from firefighters that her home was probably gone. The 3,500-square-foot, seven-level home worth $2 million was made of wood.Stoddard, a freelance videographer and photographer, captured some of the fire’s destruction as trees beside her home and her collection of 12 uninsured cars burned.”I stayed there until I couldn’t breathe and the embers were flying everywhere,” she said. “It was dark and I was standing around my house. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t grab enough stuff that was of importance, like my passport.”As a precaution, officials at Pepperdine University told its students to move to a campus shelter, although the school remained largely empty because of the holiday weekend.Stoddard was philosophical about the probable state of her house and said she was determined to stay in Malibu no matter what the conditions.”I’ll maybe live in a tepee,” she said.

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