There has been an average of two fires in the Malibu area every decade since 1929.
By Vicky Shere / Special to The Malibu Times
With today's year-long fire season, it's comforting to know that Malibu pioneer Frederick Rindge had the same experience with wildfires that we do.
In his 1898 book, "Happy Days in California," the last owner of the Spanish land grant, Malibu Rancho, wrote about the "Great Drought of 1897" and a three-day wildfire resulting from dreaded Santa Ana winds.
He described a family putting wet blankets on buildings exposed to flying embers; escaping to a nearby creek; and community aid to survivors.
"The dry year and the mountain fire just about ruined one of the settlers…," Rindge wrote. "But he had friends. From far and near they gathered together… and each was requested to bring something for a woodland feast in the great sycamore grove.
"Besides this, each one was asked to give a dollar toward a purse to be presented to the unfortunate family… it was pleasantly agreed that the recipients should organize a like benefit for the next man burned out; thus all feeling of being an object of charity was removed."
Since 1929, there has been an average of two wildfires per decade [see page A8]. Neighbors help neighbors and response and recovery have become more institutionalized.
In his 1958 book, "The Malibu," Broad Beach resident Lawrence Clark Powell wrote of the December 26, 1956, "Newton Fire," which burned 26,000 acres, destroyed 100 homes and caused one death.
An operator at the "County Fire Station at Zuma" told residents to evacuate, Powell wrote. He and his wife carried a toy poodle and a cat to the beach. Neighbors brought the Powell's horse and burro to the beach, and the other Powell cats came out of hiding to join them. The Powells joined neighbors in putting out small fires on the beach. A county engine came from Downey and called for backup to save homes in the path of flames from Encinal Canyon. Edison Company lineman blasted chemical foam on the brush. Deputy sheriffs sealed off roads to keep away looters. The Zuma Fire Station was the staging area for firefighters from San Diego and San Luis Obispo, Powell wrote.
In her 1950 book, "My Fifty Years in Malibu," Carbon Beach resident Dorothy Stotsenberg described devastation from the 1970 "Wright Fire" (28,000 acres, 10 deaths, 103 homes destroyed) in Malibu Knolls, Malibu Road and Serra Retreat. A clothing center set up at Malibu Presbyterian Church after that blaze was the genesis of The Artifac Tree thrift shop founded by the late Honey Coatsworth, Stotsenberg wrote.
Ellen Francisco's experience in the 1978 "Kanan Blaze" (25,000 acres, two deaths, 230 homes destroyed) illustrates two facts of modern life: working outside Malibu and politics.
Francisco said in a telephone interview that she had to race home from Santa Monica High School, where she was a counselor. Her husband, who was at UCLA School of Dentistry, did not receive a message about the fire until late in the day.
California Proposition 13, which capped property taxes, had been recently enacted, the Broad Beach resident added. With less property tax money available, there were not many emergency responders at the scene.
"People fended for themselves," Francisco said. "No one in the 35 homes was evacuated. It was not like today, where emergency personnel were on top of the situation."
The "Old Topanga Fire" of 1993 (16,800 acres burned, three civilian deaths, 268 homes destroyed in Malibu, $219 million damage) was a watershed in local wildfire history. Not only did it bring the "the largest deployment of firefighters in the history of California" at the time, it was the catalyst for new methods of recovery.
After the 1993 fire, The Malibu Times instituted "Operation Recovery." There was a special section of the paper devoted to recovery information, and survivors met weekly to deal with the emotional trauma of the fire.
In her 2004 book "Malibu Diary," veteran Times journalist Penny O'Malley wrote that she reported on building regulations and permits, funneled press releases from federal and state disaster relief offices to fire survivors passed on referrals to psychologists, and sorted out information on insurance for the local readers
Besides venting their frustrations, survivors shared information as leverage in getting insurance companies and government to be responsive.
"Survivors of the Oakland Berkeley fire [of 1991] told me that government could be your own worst enemy with building regulations and that insurance companies were denying or underpaying claims," Times co-publisher Arnold G. York recalled.
"Four hundred homes were lost in the 1993 fire," York added. "Voters in the upcoming election needed the City Council to cut red tape. It always helps to organize to exercise political clout."
"Gumdrop," the Greater Malibu Disaster Recovery Project, was also created after the 1993 fire by community leaders such as Lou Drobnick of Pepperdine University and Frank Brady of HRL, said Gumdrop board members Ann Payne and Bill Sampson. The nonprofit was formed to help people who have no other means of assistance.
"Lots of people fell through the cracks in 1993," Sampson said. "Although we're ready to help, we hope we never have to do anything again."
After the 1993 fire, homeowners associations also got more proactive. The Big Rock Mesa and Horizon Hills associations have received grants from the California Fire Safe Council for brush clearance.
In 2004, the city of Malibu established the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, training program. In last month's fire (4,565 acres burned, six homes destroyed, 15 damaged), graduates such as Alessandra DeClario set up evacuation centers at Zuma Beach and Malibu High School, and helped the 2,100 evacuees connect with families and pets.
Residents always rebuild more fire-proof homes.
Richard Feinstein's house was destroyed in 1993. He rebuilt on his Rambla Pacifico property and installed a water tank used by firefighters last month. Although flames came within inches of his home, its ceramic tile exterior, metal window frames, stainless steel garage door and cement floors and walls remained intact.
10/26/1929 - Malibu Colony, 13 homes burned.
1930 - "Potrero," Decker Canyon Road Corridor, 15,000 acres, accidental blaze caused by walnut pickers in Thousand Oaks area.
10/23/1935 - "Malibu" or "Latigo/Sherwood," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 30,000 acres.
11/23/1938 - "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 14,500 acres.
10/20/1943 - "Las Flores," Malibu Canyon, 5,800 acres.
11/6/1943 - "Woodland Hills (Las Virgenes)," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 15,000 acres.
12/26/1956 - "Newton," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 26,000 acres, 100 homes, one death, Frank Dickover.
12/2/1958 - "Liberty," Malibu Canyon, 18,000 acres, eight firefighters injured, 74 homes destroyed (17 in Corral Canyon).
11/6/1961 - "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 8,000 acres.
9/25/1970 - "Wright," Malibu Canyon, 28,000 acres, 10 deaths, 103 homes destroyed.
10/30/1973 - "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 2,800 acres.
10/23/1978 - "Kanan," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 25,000 acres, 2 deaths, 230 homes.
10/09/1982 - "Dayton," Malibu Canyon Corridor, 44,000 acres, 15 homes in Paradise Cove destroyed.
10/14/1985 - "Piuma," Las Flores area, Topanga Canyon, 4,700 acres.
10/14/1985 - "Decker," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 6,600 acres. Both arson-caused; six homes destroyed; $1 million damage.
11/2/1993 - "Old Topanga Fire," Topanga Canyon Corridor, at the time "the largest deployment of firefighters in the history of California," 3 civilian deaths, 565 firefighters injured (five in Malibu), 16,800 acres burned, 369 homes (268 in Malibu) destroyed. $219 million damage.
10/28/1996 - "Calabasas," Malibu Canyon Corridor, Brush fire ignited by arcing power line, 13,000 acres; 10 houses destroyed.
1/6/2003 - "Pacific," began near Pacific Coast Highway near Broad Beach, 759 acres, three homes damaged. Possibly sparked by power lines. Evacuations in Encinal and Decker canyons. Fires in Latigo and Corral canyons burned 20 acres.
1/8/2007 - "Malibu Road," began at Malibu Bluffs State Park, 20 acres burned, five homes destroyed, six damaged. Speculated cause, "discarded smoking materials." $60-$100 million damage.
10/21/2007 - "Canyon" Fire - 4,565 acres burned; three firefighters injured; six homes destroyed (four within city limits); 15 homes damaged; 2,100 residents evacuated.
Sources: Los Angeles County Fire Department; California Coastal Commission; The Malibu Times, Los Angeles Times; "Burn Malibu Burn," Michael Davis; LA Weekly Nov. 15-21, 1996;" The Malibu," W.W. Robinson and Lawrence Clark Powell, 1958; "Malibu Diary," Penelope Grenoble O'Malley, 2004; "My Fifty Years in Malibu," Dorothy Stotsenberg, 2005; malibucomplete.