Firefighters gain on Malibu blaze

The Baltimore Sun

MALIBU, Calif. -- A day after a wind-whipped blaze destroyed 53 homes in Malibu and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, fire officials were cautiously optimistic yesterday, reporting calmer winds and gains made overnight.

"We're getting a pretty good handle on it," Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson said. "The temperatures are cooling, and winds have died down considerably. We're in pretty good shape."

The fire was 70 percent contained yesterday afternoon, with full containment expected as soon as late today, Haralson said.

Pacific Coast Highway was reopened for the first time yesterday afternoon. "Pretty much everyone will be allowed to return home," Haralson said.

The blaze, which began early Saturday and grew to become Malibu's most destructive in nearly 15 years, had burned 4,720 acres, consuming 53 homes, one mobile home and two outbuildings. Forty-five other structures, including 34 homes, were damaged, authorities said. The fire also destroyed 14 vehicles.

Haralson said the fierce Santa Ana wind gusts that had driven the flames had dropped to about 8 to 12 mph by yesterday morning. "We've got a lot of hot and smoldering spots," he said, "but not much active flame right now."

Still, he said, firefighters were not easing their efforts. "We want to make very sure we stay on top of the hot spots. We don't want another starter."

Investigators determined that the Corral fire, which broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway, was caused by humans but had not determined whether it was started intentionally, said county Fire Inspector Rick Dominguez. Neighbors said the area is a popular spot for young people to party outdoors late at night.

Seven firefighters suffered minor injuries, authorities said.

Despite the lighter winds, authorities said a red-flag warning, issued when the humidity level drops below 8 percent, would remain in effect in Los Angeles and Ventura counties until last night.

Last month's wildfires ignited in areas across Southern California and stretched limited firefighting resources thin. This time, only Malibu was ablaze. As a result, two-dozen firefighting aircraft and hundreds on the ground were able to concentrate their attacks.

"It helped that nothing else is going on," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Wilkins. "We have a lot of assets put in place."

Knowing that Santa Ana winds and low humidity were in the forecast, fire officials started preparing days ago.

More than 600 firefighters from across California and the western United States had gathered in San Bernardino before Thanksgiving, officials said.

About 1,750 firefighters, at least 45 fire engines, numerous hand crews, 23 water-dropping helicopters and two fixed-wing planes battled the blaze.

"This was remarkable. In my 35 years of doing this, it was an unprecedented mobilization," Wilkins said. "We've been doing this type of thing for many years. I just don't remember it on this type of scale."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a statement Saturday afternoon, said he was reactivating the state of emergency he declared last month in response to the wildfires in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego counties.

One of the homes lost in the fire belonged to Flea, longtime bassist for the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers. In a text message to a Times reporter, Flea wrote that the home was "burnt to a crisp."

Robert Lopez, Ashraf Khalil and Kenneth R. Weiss write for the Los Angeles Times.

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