Malibu, Califronia, USA — Minutes after the outbreak of the Corral fire early Saturday, Los Angeles County fire officials had four helicopters in the air attacking the flames, and more than 25 firetrucks stationed nearby were on their way to Malibu.
With the blaze expected to be fully contained today and evacuees allowed to return home Sunday, county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman credited the quick response and the loss of only 53 homes to planning that began a week ago.
Fire chiefs from throughout the region and federal officials studied computer models of what might happen when the Santa Ana winds were forecast to hit the area Friday.
Based on what they found, they started planning for a massive deployment of hundreds of firefighters from throughout California and other Western states to stand watch over the weekend.
Though Freeman bemoaned the loss of any homes, he said, “To think that you’re not going to lose any structures with this kind of terrain and weather conditions is like thinking you can play football on a wet field and not get your pants dirty. . . . We could have easily lost 250.”
Unlike previous instances, when crews were staged primarily at a single spot, these firefighters were ordered to strategic locations in Chino, San Bernardino and Camarillo, and planes and helicopters were spread out at airfields across the region.
On Sunday, fire officials said the wind-driven blaze was 70% contained and that it had burned 4,720 acres in the rugged canyons above Malibu, which are thick with tinder-dry brush and multimillion-dollar homes. Besides the homes that were destroyed, the fire damaged an additional 34 residences.
Firefighters had cleared a line around much of the burned area by Sunday night and allowed nearly all of the residents to return to their homes. More than 600 firefighters were released as remaining crews focused mostly on flare-ups and hot spots and tending to backfires set to eliminate thick chaparral that could fuel a major resurgence.
“The worst of it is definitely over,” said Glenn Massey, deputy Los Angeles County fire chief. “We feel pretty confident that we are done with this one.”
‘Still some uncertainty’
Besides successful planning, firefighters also benefited from a break in the weather and the ability to focus on a single blaze.
The National Weather Service lifted its red flag warning Sunday night as onshore flow raised humidity above 10%. But meteorologists warned that dry Santa Anas could return Wednesday or Thursday. “There’s still some uncertainty,” said David Gomberg of the National Weather Service in Oxnard. But if the winds return, they are expected to be less forceful than those that fanned what was Malibu’s worst fire in nearly 15 years.
Fire investigators continued to look into what caused the blaze, which began about 3:30 a.m. Saturday on the top of Corral Canyon Road near Castro Canyon Way. Although they declined to rule out arson, investigators continued to attribute the wildfire to human activity, said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Capt. Tom Martin.
Residents began to return to their neighborhoods Sunday, some of them avoiding roadblocks by walking up canyons from Pacific Coast Highway. Clusters of homes were unscathed. Other areas were left with little more than smoldering debris. Downed power lines littered some streets, and the charred shells of cars sat in driveways. The only thing left amid a string of leveled houses on Lookout Road in Corral Canyon was a small terra cotta Buddha.
Film producer Stephen Polk returned from a camping trip with his children to find his house on Lookout Road in good shape. The garden hose, wound neatly when he left, was trailing into his backyard. He tried to find those who might have helped save his home.
“The Fire Department made a stand on the far side of your house,” longtime resident Leonard Skuro told Polk, taking a break from making repairs around his own house. “Later, the bushes lit on fire a few times, and I put those out.”
As other neighbors gathered to assess the damage, Cacilia Tolles drove by in a boisterous display of exhilaration and relief. “They saved my house! I still have a house!” she shouted to anyone she passed.
Glen and Debra Sunyich weren’t as lucky. An ember ignited a redwood deck and flames then devoured their home of 25 years. Only the garage and guesthouse remained.
A small patch of green
They picked through a stack of charred picture frames, though the photos inside were unrecognizable. They also found a stack of melted dishes and a couple of computer hard drives burned to a crisp. Glen Sunyich tried to lift his wife’s spirits by pointing to a small patch of lawn. “Look,” he said, “a little bit of the grass lived.”
Elsewhere on Lookout Road, a single stucco house stood unscathed, flanked by three smoldering lots on both sides. Outside the home was a sign: “Open house. Food, water, bathrooms, showers.”
Inside, Jerri and Frank Churchill offered lemonade and food to firefighters and newly homeless neighbors.
“What saved our house?” said Jerri Churchill, the lucky homeowner. “God, brush clearance, a tile roof and stucco walls.”
Flames destroyed two cars in the driveway of 78-year-old Eleanor Mills. She also lost her garage and guest house. Flames came through the front door of her home and got as far as the kitchen before subsiding, sparing the back of the ranch-style home where she raised eight children.
She and two of her sons emptied the salvageable contents of her freezer into a cooler. They also sifted through piles of broken glass. Her son John found a plate commemorating her 40th-wedding anniversary to her late husband, Jim.
“When you look at the house next door, it could have been a lot worse,” she said.
Next door, Jennifer Grossman and several friends dug through the remains of her three-story house. They were searching for her fireproof safe.
When they found it, the safe was still hot to the touch. After they pried the door open, they found the contents warped and melted.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later toured the ruins with other officials, tried to console Grossman. She showed the governor a plastic shopping bag containing the charred license plate of her boyfriend’s car. “This is what’s left.”
Schwarzenegger praised local, state and federal fire officials for a deployment that brought together the influx of firefighters, fire engines, 23 water-dropping helicopters and two fixed-wing planes.
“They all came together very quickly,” he said.
That planning began with the Nov. 15 conference call during which county, state and federal officials reviewed a computer model of weather and brush conditions that were projected for Southern California during Thanksgiving week.
The prediction was dire. Santa Ana winds of 60 mph were forecast, and moisture levels were expected to plummet — conditions that could help fires burn fast and hopscotch to unburned areas as far as two miles away.
“We thought it was going to be deja vu all over again,” said Tom Berry, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, referring to the firestorms that ravaged Southern California a month earlier.
At first, computer models predicted that winds would blow all week long. An updated analysis showed that winds would blow only after Thanksgiving — on Friday and Saturday — and only in the areas around L.A. and San Bernardino counties.
With the updated information, Berry said, officials decided to stage the crews at the three main areas in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
In addition, smaller strike teams of five fire engines each would be placed at local fire stations throughout the region.
By distributing the equipment and firefighters in this way, officials said, they could protect a wider area and not be impaired by traffic or long commutes.
As of Thanksgiving Day, 449 fire engines from in and outside the state were amassed at various staging areas. They were backed up by 102 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as 89 hand crews from the California Department of Corrections to help cut fire breaks.
“It was unprecedented,” Berry said of the buildup.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department had 100 extra firefighters on duty to drive water tankers and light pickups that patrol wildfire-prone areas with heavy brush. Firefighters who were scheduled to go off duty Saturday morning were also held back to staff 40 additional fire engines.
Within eight minutes of the blaze’s start Saturday morning, a county battalion chief was in a helicopter circling over the fire to help direct the attack. About 10 minutes later, three additional county helicopters — each carrying 1,000 gallons of water — were making water drops in the darkness before dawn.
They were joined shortly by three helicopters from the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Both agencies are among the few whose pilots make difficult nighttime water drops. “We know the terrain,” Freeman said.
Although they credited the response with helping to prevent additional destruction, officials at the Malibu command center warned Sunday that the fire season was far from over.
“If we don’t get some rain,” Berry said, “we could be doing this again at Christmas.”