Nov 152007
 
Authors: Thomas Watkins

MALIBU, Calif. (AP) _ Fire crews hoped mild temperatures and gentle winds Sunday would help them solidify gains against the sprawling wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in this upscale coastal community.

Hot, powerful winds that fanned the blaze across 4,720 acres starting early Saturday were not expected Sunday, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson said.

The fire was about 40 percent contained, with few flames visible to the three water-dropping helicopters deployed over the fire zone, Haralson said.

“Winds have subsided considerably and we’re making good headway,” he said.

Forty-nine homes were destroyed Saturday by the fast-moving wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds. Twenty-seven other homes were damaged and 10,000 to 14,000 people were evacuated.

The seaside enclave had been recovering from last month’s 4,565-acre Canyon Fire that destroyed six homes, two businesses and a church when the winds began whipping up again overnight Saturday.

Some residents whose property made it through last month’s fire unscathed weren’t so lucky this time.

“This time I lost,” said a soot-covered Glen Sunyich, who watched his stucco and tile house he built in 1990 slowly burn to the ground. “It means that I didn’t build it well enough.”

Hundreds of firefighters and equipment from throughout the state had been positioned in Southern California for most of the week because of the predicted Santa Ana winds. Residents said they have grown accustomed to the potential fire danger when the strong gusts blow.

“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,” Mayor Jeff Jennings said.

All of the homes were destroyed in the fire’s initial Saturday morning surge before the winds slowed and firefighters gained a foothold.

With the winds dying down considerably, an estimated half of the evacuees were allowed to return home. Full containment was expected by Tuesday, officials said.

Fifteen helicopters and 15 airplanes including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jumbo jet attacked from the air Saturday while 1,700 firefighters battled flames on the ground. Six firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Investigators had determined that the fire, which broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway, was caused by humans, but had not determined if it was started intentionally, said county fire Inspector Rick Dominguez.

Malibu, with homes tucked into deep and narrow canyons along 27 miles of coast on the southern foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, is prone to Santa Ana-driven wildfires. Among them was a 1993 blaze that destroyed 388 structures, including 268 homes, and killed three people.

Saturday’s fire was west of the areas of Malibu that burned in October.

Santa Ana winds, triggered by high pressure over the Great Basin, blow into Southern California from the north and northeast, racing 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.

Carol Stoddard said she had only a few moments to leave her home in the middle of the night as flames approached her home.

The 48-year-old freelance videographer and photographer captured some of the fire’s destruction as she left. But it wasn’t until she returned that she was able to survey the damage.

Her $2 million wooden home and collection of 12 uninsured cars were gone. Appearing in shock, she said she was numb.

Another resident who reportedly lost his home was Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary, property records showed.

Balzary had purchased another home in Malibu last year, but the one destroyed was for sale for $4.8 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

For a time a hotspot flared several ridges behind Pepperdine University, but the campus did not appear to have been endangered. Helicopters used its broad oceanview lawn as a landing zone.

When the fire broke out, university officials told students to move to a campus shelter, although the school remained largely empty because of the holiday weekend.

Two high schools were set up to handle evacuees, but no one had come to one school and the other only had 20 people.

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