Wind-Driven Wildfire Strikes California Again

Saturday, November 24th 2007, 3:07 pm
By: News On 6

MALIBU, Calif. (AP) - A fast-moving wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds raced through the canyons and mountains of this wealthy enclave for the second time in little more than a month Saturday, destroying more than 30 homes and forcing as many as 14,000 residents to flee.

The fire erupted shortly before 3:30 a.m. PST after the long-predicted Santa Anas finally returned, and by late morning it had grown to 2,200 acres, or about 3.5 square miles, but winds began to die down.

``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,'' said Mayor Jeff Jennings.

Twenty-three helicopters and airplanes, including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jumbo jet, attacked from the air while 1,700 firefighters battled flames on the ground. One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury. ``It's great to be able to say that we have no loss of lives,'' Jennings said. ``We're sorry about the one injury that's been suffered, but it's certainly not as bad as it could have been.''

Helicopters lowered hoses into pools and the nearby Pacific to refill their tanks for water-dropping runs, and SuperScooper amphibious airplanes skimmed the ocean to reload.

Hundreds of firefighters and equipment from throughout the state had been positioned in Southern California for most of the week because of the predicted winds, which had been expected to blow most of the week but didn't arrive until late Friday. Officials remained wary despite the decrease in wind speeds.

The mayor urged residents to ``listen to your radios, go outside and see which way the wind is blowing. Stay alert. Stay vigilant.'' An estimated 35 homes were destroyed, and 10,000 to 14,000 people evacuated, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.

The fire broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway, and there did not appear to be power lines in the area, Freeman said. Investigators were trying to determine the cause, he said. Another fire broke out Saturday morning in San Diego County near the town of Ramona and was 40 percent contained after burning 50 acres, said Roxanne Provanik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Power lines blown down by fierce winds caused last month's 4,565-acre Canyon Fire in Malibu that destroyed six homes, two businesses and a church. That blaze was part of siege of more than 15 Santa Ana-stoked wildfires that destroyed more than 2,000 homes, killed 14 people and blackened a total of 809 square miles between Los Angeles County and the U.S.-Mexico border.

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.

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. Neighbors alerted one another, while authorities drove through Corral Canyon, a neighborhood of about 350 homes, telling people to leave.

Meredith Lobel-Angel, 51, and her husband, Frank Angel, 54, said they had 15 minutes to leave their split-level home and managed to take little other than some clothes and their laptops. ``I ran out on the deck and I just saw a little fire and smoke up the canyon on the ridge (about a mile away),'' Frank Angel said. ``By the time we evacuated it was already over the ridge. It spread faster than I've ever seen it.''

Carol Stoddard, 48, was told by firefighters that her home was probably gone. The 3,500-square-foot, seven-level home was worth $2 million. Stoddard, a freelance videographer and photographer, captured some of the fire's destruction as trees beside her home and her collection of 12 uninsured cars burned.

``I stayed there until I couldn't breathe and the embers were flying everywhere,'' she said. ``It was dark and I was standing around my house. I couldn't see. I couldn't grab enough stuff that was of importance like my passport.''

As a precaution, officials at Pepperdine University told its students to move to a campus shelter, although the school remained largely empty because of the holiday weekend. ``Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday I was told the weather conditions was Santa Ana winds and we all know what that means,'' said university spokesman Jerry Derloshon.

Stoddard was philosophical about the probability that her house was gone and said she was determined to stay in Malibu no matter what the conditions. ``I'll maybe live in a tepee,'' she said.