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Malibu Disasters & Hazards: Fires
Malibu, with its dry chaparral brush and north-to-south running canyons, makes ideal turf for Santa Ana wind-driven flames. The Malibu area hosts one of the most combustible types of brush in existence, the chaparral ecosystem. Chaparral consists of many small, woody plants that are full of oils and are extremely flammable. These plants also tend to occur in very dry climates, and are drought-resistant. But the vegetation's most dangerous trait is its tendency to burn every 15 to 45 years in its own natural reproductive cycle, to eliminate old growth and begin the regenerative process. Inhabitants make the problem worse. Small fires are extinguished in the Malibu hills as soon as they threaten homes. But preventing the remaining plants from burning causes large amounts of old, dry brush to build up in Malibu's canyons, providing massive quantities of flammable material.
The Las Virgenes/Malibu Canyon corridor provides a fertile playground for wildfires, with its steep walls and high-velocity winds. The growing population north of the canyon creates many opportunities for accidental triggers or arson to start a major fire.
During the fall and early winter months, strong Santa Ana winds take regular trips through Malibu and out to the ocean. As the Santa Ana winds blow through, evaporating whatever moisture is left in the chaparral after the long dry summer, relative humidity can drop below 10 percent. Once a fire starts, it is nearly impossible to contain, until the Santa Ana winds die down. Malibu has a history of wildfires which "historically follow well-defined wildfire corridors. When large and damaging fires occur you'll find the wind and fire corridors perfectly aligned." (report 4) This makes it even more difficult to fight a fire.
Malibu's first major fire disaster occured almost exactly 49 years before the 1978 fire. The date was October 26, 1929. Most of the Malibu Colony burned to the ground when one house fire led to 11 house fires and many of Malibu's first homes were destroyed. It was said that few residents were home that Friday night during the fire. Why? Most were in Palo Alto for the "Big Game" between Cal State and Stanford, the state's premier annual sports event. The date may look familiar. On Monday, as fans were returning home to a Colony in ashes, the stock market crashed.
Major fires in Malibu with loss of multiple homes:
Two weeks before Christmas in 1958, fire swept through the community. This time, an 18,000-acre blaze burned between Malibu and Zuma canyons. The wildfire, which hit two weeks shy of the second anniversary of the 1956 La Costa fire, destroyed 17 homes in Corral Canyon.
On Oct. 23, 1978 fire raged in Malibu, this time at the western end of town. The Agoura fire, fed by strong Santa Ana winds, burned through the Kanan Corridor, charring huge swaths of Zuma Canyon and Malibu Park as it raced to the sea. Trancas Canyon and Broad Beach sustained the heaviest losses in the 25,000-acre firestorm. Between Mulholland Highway and Trancas and Broad Beach, 162 homes were destroyed.
During the fire storms in the fall of 1993. L.A. County required the aid of thousands of firefighters from other cities, counties, and states during these incidents. More than 900 fire engines from across the state responded to the Malibu fires alone.
The terrible fires of November 1993 totally destroyed the $4 million Carbon Mesa Road home of actor Sean Penn (at 22271 Carbon Mesa Rd, east of the Colony, where he previously lived with Madonna). Actress Ali MacGraw's Rambla Pacifico home (even farther east) also burned to the ground.
Starting near the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Old Topanga Canyon Road on the morning of Nov. 2, 1993, the fire made its way to Pacific Coast Highway by the afternoon, killing three people and destroying nearly 400 structures--mostly houses--in Malibu and unincorporated sections of Los Angeles County. A few dozen homes burned in Topanga Canyon and the Saddle Peak area to the west, the bulk of the damage was along the canyons between the Malibu Civic Center to the West and Tuna Canyon to the east. About 50 homes were destroyed in the Big Rock area while Las Flores Canyon lost about 60 homes. Most of the 150-odd homes in La Costa, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, were destroyed.
Contrary to Davis: Even in areas such as Malibu, where most of the land remains wild, the replacement of old wood shakeroofed houses with fire resistant structures, better fire truck access, brush clearance and the installation of up to date water lines, insures that fire damage will decrease over the years.
The big fire of 1993 happened because the old water lines were inadequate and the area had not burned since the 1930's, leaving fifty years of brush adjacent to the oldest area of pre-fire code houses left in Malibu. That kind of fire can never happen again as the homes now meet present fire codes and the water lines have been upgraded. The next fire a few years after that in 1996--even though it covered almost as large an area in acreage within Malibu proper--did not destroy a single house within the Malibu City limits and only burned one home in the Malibu Post Office area, and that was one of the oldest homes in the area.
Malibu fires in October-November 2007
After several years of drought in the area, fire returned to Malibu on January 8, 2007 with a blaze that began around 5:00PM inside Malibu Bluffs State Park, just west of the center of Malibu. Temperatures were warm and humidity was very low as a strong breeze spread sparks and embers to homes along the beach side of Malibu Road, below the park. Before the fire could be contained, four multi-million dollar homes were completely destroyed and another four or five were heavily damaged. Suzanne Somers' home was reported destroyed and other celebrities had damage or close calls. In Malibu, it can happen at any time.
Fire broke out in Malibu Canyon early in the morning of October 21, 2007. A chaotic firestorm dominated Malibu for most of the day, with firefighting rendered impotent by strong Santa Ana winds. The Hodge Castle was destroyed along with the Malibu Presbyterian Church on Malibu Canyon Road and about 20 other structures. The fire crossed PCH and set homes in the Colony afire. The unholy combination of high temperatures, Santa Ana winds and very low humidity kept the fire moving, but firefighters got the upper hand and the fire was contained by October 24th allowing PCH and the canyon roads to reopen.
Then, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (November 24, 2007), fifty to seventy mph Santa Ana winds blew ultra-low humidity air through the hills of Malibu. Fire broke out in the darkness of 3:30 AM and soon homes along Corral Canyon Road and the brush of nearby hills were ablaze. This time, computer models had predicted the severe risk weather conditions and the fire fighters were ready. Before the fire, by Thanksgiving Day, four hundred fifty Mutual Aid fire engines with hundreds of firefighters from California and Western states had been staged in the area, backed up by over one hundred helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. With these assets deployed ahead of time, and with the Santa Anas dying out on Sunday afternoon, fire crews quickly got the upper hand. It could have been much worse, but still over ten thousand residents were evacuated, another fifty Malibu homes were reduced to ashes, and dozens of other homes were damaged.
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