MALIBU, Calif. -- One of the most large-scale firefighting efforts ever undertaken in California succeeded early yesterday in saving thickly populated areas of Los Angeles from a stubborn wildfire, but not before more than 200 homes and 35,000 acres in the wealthy beachside enclave of Malibu and nearby canyons were destroyed.
All night, fires of suspicious origin raged out of control, until the Santa Ana winds from the desert abated yesterday morning. As winds changed, black and orange banks of smoke parted a bit, revealing a scene of terrible desolation to those in a helicopter above. Vast tracts of rutted hills were blackened, sprinkled with white ash and littered with the forlorn ruins of once-magnificent homes.
But the fire was a capricious enemy. For just across Pacific Coast Highway, the ribbon of concrete that separates the beach from the hills, all but a handful of the costly beachfront homes emerged untouched by fire. Completely intact was the Malibu Colony, a private enclave on the water where many movie stars keep homes, which was apparently preserved by a lagoon and open fields that halted the fire.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the "Star Wars" movies, congratulated firefighters who saved his house but marveled at the destruction around him.
"It's just shocking," he said. "Here we have the house next door, these are the boys my two sons grew up with for the past 15 years that we've lived here, [and their home is] completely burned to the ground. It looks like a war zone."
Flames towering 60 feet or more continued to flare yesterday in the upper, less populated reaches of Topanga, Tuna and Carrol canyons north of Malibu, and in the Fernwood area, west of Los Angeles.
Yesterday afternoon, 100 homes in imminent danger were evacuated on Fernwood Pacific Drive near Topanga Canyon Boulevard. County fire officials said it would take another three days to contain the remaining fires.
But a force of 5,000 firefighters, 765 engine companies and six air tankers achieved the top priority of preventing the flames from crossing the Rubicon of Topanga Canyon and spreading east into the city of Los Angeles, toward the J. Paul Getty Museum and populous areas such as Palisades Highlands, Pacific Palisades and Castellamare.
Yesterday afternoon, however, an edge of fire managed to jump onto the east wall of Topanga Canyon, bringing it less than two miles from the Palisades Highlands.
Exhausted fire crews worked all night to hold the line along Topanga Canyon, just east of Malibu, aided by helicopters dropping fire retardants and 3,000-gallon buckets of water filled from the ocean.
"The worst is over," proclaimed Chief Donald Manning of the Los Angeles Fire Department just after dawn yesterday, crediting "a good break in the weather."
After 24 hours of fast, hot desert winds, the winds abated and shifted yesterday morning to on-shore. The weather forecast called for mild winds today and tomorrow, but fire crews remained uneasy about the notoriously fickle Santa Anas that come every fall.
The day's actions capped an exhausting, nerve-wracking week of firestorms in Southern California that have now blackened about 200,000 acres in six counties and destroyed more than 700 homes, not counting the Malibu destruction. While not calling the fire arson, Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators were investigating reports of suspicious people seen near the point of origin of the fire on Old Topanga Canyon Road near Calabasas.
After touring the area yesterday morning, an angry Gov. Pete Wilson said there was evidence of arson and announced a $125,000 reward for the arrest of suspects.
There were new calls yesterday for tougher regulations on urban development in remote fire-prone hills and canyons in the arid West.
In an interview yesterday on the ABC program "Good Morning America," Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt said, "We're going to have to really do some soul-searching about the process of building into these deep canyons with all the brush and start examining zoning ordinances and federal policies."
Several factors made the fires of the last week even more probable than normal: six years of drought that left much dead vegetation in inaccessible canyons, a rainy spring that added a thick new underbrush, a long, dry summer, and then the dry Santa Ana winds. The conditions were ignited by arson, accident or downed power lines.
An hour aboard a helicopter offered an eerie and sometimes terrifying glimpse into the inferno's devastation. A blanket of orange-brown smoke hovered over the Pacific Coast Highway.
The rows of beach houses, cheek by jowl, were almost untouched on the curving strand of Malibu. But just across the highway and up a short hill was some of the worst destruction in Malibu, along Rambla Vista and adjoining streets, where a huge white mansion with a swimming pool was one of the few houses that remained.
MORE WILDFIRES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Los Angeles County
* More than 35,000 acres burned, from Woodland Hills through Topanga Canyon and into Malibu; 200 homes destroyed.
San Bernardino County
* 55 acres burned, including northwestern portion of city of Yucaipa.
* Two fires, one still out of control; more than 8,000 acres burned; six people injured; 17 structures damaged or destroyed.
San Diego County
* More than 1,500 acres burned.