Wind-Driven Wildfire Strikes Malibu Again, 49 Homes Destroyed

November 26, 2007

Glen Sunyich has seen flames ravage the canyons and mountains above Malibu, Calif., three times and has been thankful his home was spared. The fourth time, he wasn’t so lucky.

Sunyich’s home was among 49, along with two outbuildings, that were destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds. Twenty-seven other homes were damaged and 10,000 to 14,000 people were evacuated.

For the second time in little more than a month, residents like Sunyich were left to survey the damage left by flames in Malibu.

“This time I lost,” said a soot-covered 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.”

The coastal community 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, November 24.

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 morning surge before the winds slowed and firefighters gained a foothold. On Sunday morning, the fire was estimated at 4,700 acres with 40 percent containment.

With the winds dying down considerably, an estimated half of the evacuees were allowed to return home. Fire officials believe they will gain better control of the blaze by Sunday and to fully contain it by Tuesday.

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. 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 were still deciding whether 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 burned to the west of the portions of Malibu that burned in October.

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.

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 her 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. The musician told the Los Angeles Times by text message that his home had “burned to a crisp.”

Balzary had purchased another home in Malibu last year, but the one destroyed is for sale for $4.8 million, the newspaper 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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