Deja vu in Malibu
MALIBU – Still reeling a month after wind-whipped wildfires racked the exclusive community of Malibu, the Pfeiffer family awoke at 4 a.m. Saturday to once again face the stifling smell of smoke. An hour later, sheriff’s deputies were at the Pfeiffers’ Corral Canyon home telling them to evacuate. The family grabbed what they could – a computer hard drive, passports, financial records, a change of clothes, family photos – and fled. “This will be the fifth time we have been evacuated,” Jon Pfeiffer, a 20-year Malibu resident, said as he stood along Pacific Coast Highway later Saturday waiting for news of his home. “The second time in a month.” The Pfeiffers are among thousands in the tony enclave who grappled with firestorms that by late Saturday had scorched at least 4,650 acres, destroyed nearly 50 homes, damaged more than two dozen more and forced as many as 14,000 to flee. The fast-moving blazes created an inferno in an area still rebuilding and recovering after firestorms last month charred more than 1,200 acres and destroyed nine structures, including the landmark Malibu Presbyterian Church. Late Saturday, more than 1,700 firefighters continued to battle the blaze, which broke out about 3:30 a.m. amid Santa Ana winds gusting up to 60 mph. By late in the day, the fierce Santa Anas had generally died down, but officials were still working on containment and control. Six firefighters were reported injured, the most seriously a state firefighter who suffered first- and second-degree facial burns. “The firefighting operations will continue tonight,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said Saturday afternoon. “The fire is still fairly active on the east flank.” There were plans for containment, but they depend on the wind today, he said. “The fire activity has subsided considerably,” he said at a 5 p.m. news conference, with the blaze 25 percent contained. The fire was hot and fast, he said. “It tore through these areas … The firefighters feel as badly about the homes that were destroyed as anyone” and were compiling a list of damaged and destroyed homes on the city of Malibu’s Web site at www.ci.malibu.ca.us. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, at the scene earlier in the day with other officials as fire engines screamed past and flames flared on the hillsides above, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was being continuously briefed on the situation. Freeman said the emergency declaration made by the federal government during last month’s fires is still in effect. Firefighters said the blaze broke out near the top of Corral Canyon and most of the homes destroyed were along Newell Road in the Malibu Bowl area. About five homes in Latigo Canyon also burned. Power knocked out Most of the homes that were threatened late in the day were in narrow Corral and Latigo canyons. Nearby Pepperdine University was not directly threatened. In Latigo Canyon early in the day, a ruptured gas line spewed 15-foot flames like a giant blowtorch along the ground, making the rocks glow like lava. Down the street, charred remains of a home could be seen. A car in the driveway had been gutted by fire, and the only thing recognizable inside the wreckage of the house was a kitchen stove. Officials said late Saturday that power had been knocked out to thousands of residents in Malibu because of burned poles and lines and was not expected to be restored until sometime today. Streets were quiet Saturday afternoon as most residents had evacuated. Scores of blue, orange and green homes that had been spared from the flames dotted charred hillsides. A few remaining residents watered down brush around their homes. At the Rising Star Ranch at 3800 Latigo Canyon Road, fire crews chased the fire front as it hopped across the brushy terrain. They used chain saws and axes to clear brush and make way for large bulldozers whose tracks dug up the warm asphalt. `Natural situation’ The Pacific Coast Highway, a lifeline for the community, remained closed late Saturday between Kanan Dume and Malibu Canyon roads. Kanan Dume, Latigo Canyon and Malibu Canyon roads also were closed. Mandatory evacuations were in effect much of Saturday for canyon residents, with evacuation centers set up at Channel Islands High School in Oxnard and Agoura High School. Corral, Ramirez, Latigo, Paradise Cove, Merrit Drive, Point Dume Club all reportedly were evacuated. The cause of the fire had not yet been determined, but arson investigators traced its origin to Mesa Peak Motorway, near a scenic overlook called Malibu Bowl. “It was definitely suspicious,” said L.A. County Fire Capt. Mike Brown, adding that investigators were trying to question anyone in the area at the time the fire erupted. Some residents said they heard cars heading down Corral Canyon between 2:30 and 3 a.m. Saturday with drivers honking their horns and others yelling and laughing. Several residents complained that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has not restricted access to the Malibu Bowl overlook in times of high fire danger and said they will seek gates that can be locked to prevent access during high-risk weather conditions. Malibu Mayor Jeff Jennings said living in the exclusive area means putting up with fire danger. “Wildfires are going to happen out here,” he said. “It’s the natural situation for this area … and burns a swath until it gets to the ocean.” Jennings said area residents are still trying to recover from last month’s blaze. “Waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning with the smell of smoke in your nose and the wind beating at the windows is always a shock,” Jennings said. “Any fire that consumes nearly 40 homes is a disaster. It’s great to be able to say that we’ve suffered no loss of lives. It could have been worse than it has been.” Freeman said advance deployment of fire equipment, including air tankers, paid off. Helicopters and air tankers were in use as soon as dawn broke, he said. Construction concerns Jennings disputed some residents’ concerns that construction work on a bridge in Corral Canyon hampered fire crews’ access in the early hours of the fire. The bridge is being built “to make it a more welcoming habitat for the reintroduction of steelhead trout,” he said, noting that the city ensured three other points of access to the canyon during its construction. “We did everything we needed to do to ensure their safety.” Meanwhile, fire crews from across the state were battling the blaze, including Bob Foxworthy, a firefighter from the Nevada, Yuba, Placer unit of CalFire. Foxworthy, who was in Southern California battling last month’s wildfires, said he had been stationed in Camarillo over the Thanksgiving holiday in anticipation of the Santa Ana winds. “They’re both bad (fires),” he said. “This one just didn’t last as long.” For Jon Pfeiffer, waiting for news of his Corral Canyon home was tense. But both his sons, Michael, 19, and Jack, 16, were safe. And so was Duke, the family’s golden retriever. Late Saturday, the family learned that their home had been saved, even though 15 of their neighbors had lost theirs. If his home had been destroyed, the 49-year-old attorney had vowed to rebuild on the same spot. “It’s a beautiful place to live.” Staff Writer Carol Bidwell contributed to this report. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!