1993 Old Topanga Fire

As seen from a home at dusk on Santa Monica Beach in November 1993, relentless fire driven by fierce Santa Ana winds climbs along the Malibu ridgeline and imperils the Big Rock neighborhood. 

Though 20 years have passed since the 1993 Old Topanga wildfire tore a towering inferno through the heart of Malibu, memories of the fire remain forever seared in local memory. 

All told, the blaze that began on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1993 and burned for 10 days left 359 homes in ruins, 18,000 acres of Malibu charred and three people dead 

Driven by Santa Ana winds that gusted to 60 MPH in the canyons, the fire raced from Mulholland Highway and Old Topanga Canyon across the Santa Monica Mountains to Pacific Coast Highway in a matter of hours. 

“Fed by the immense unimpeded oxygen supply from the Pacific, the fire screamed down upon the mesas and arroyos,” according to a Los Angeles County Fire historical archive. 

By 4 p.m. on Nov. 3, eastbound Pacific Coast Highway was jammed with cars carrying residents and their pets to safety. Children whose parents could not make it back into town in time were sheltered at Point Dume’s Malibu Community Center. The Red Cross sheltered at least 80 people at a center in Point Dume as well, including 30 school children. 

Most shops in town were closed by mid-afternoon and horses were trailered to Bluffs Park or led to the beach. 

As dawn broke the next day, Wed., Nov. 4, the western flank of the fire burned through Puerco Canyon Road. By 5:30 a.m., flames from Tuna Canyon burned to PCH and raced eastward toward Topanga Canyon. Firefighters saved businesses, including the Malibu Feed Bin, where 400 bales of hay and two drums of kerosene posed a combustible threat. 

By mid-morning, the east and west flanks still raged out of control; Civic Center east to Big Rock was almost entirely deserted. There were more bicycles than cars on PCH, and half a dozen people waited in line next to every payphone. 

The Adamson House was narrowly spared from an ominous threat, as flames leaped across PCH at Cross Creek Road near the eastern side of Malibu Colony. 

By 8:20 on Wednesday night, backfires were set along the east side of Malibu Canyon Road. But within an hour flames raced across the road and burned two buildings at Hughes Research Labs and threatened faculty housing on the northern portion of Pepperdine University’s campus. Pepperdine students and faculty moved into the Firestone Fieldhouse. Some of the campus was blackened, but no structures were lost. 

Las Flores Canyon was awash with runoff from broken water mains, and crews worked to repair downed power lines. With 90 percent of Las Flores homes gone, it seemed miraculous that The Malibu Times’ office was spared. 

There was not a house left on Rambla Orienta in the La Costa neighborhood—Malibu’s oldest— where Times publishers Arnold and Karen York lost their 1920s-era home. 

On Rambla Pacifico, where 80 percent of the homes were lost, a firestorm overwhelmed several firefighters. Al McBride took refuge in the cab of his truck and the others took shelter inside the house they were protecting. They were later taken to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center. 

On Rambla Vista, only 20 percent of the structures were saved. LA City Firefighter Shafer stayed to help county firefighters save his home. The house next door burned to the ground and collapsed into the side of his wooden house. 

“I can’t say enough about these guys,” he said. “They were wonderful. 

“My wife and child stayed until the flames came over the hill, then they got out. I had to stay. This is all I have. But I almost feel guilty that everyone else lost theirs.” 

As it scorched through Malibu, Gov. Pete Wilson affirmed the fire had attracted the largest mobilization of emergency equipment and personnel in the state’s history, including the LA Riots. More than 7,000 firefighters, 1,000 fire companies and 450 agencies were called in for assistance. 

The Old Topanga Fire would not be fully contained until Nov. 11, 1993. 

And as the fire burned, Malibu residents like Times publisher Arnold York knew the town would be forever changed in the aftermath of the Old Topanga blaze. 

“I lost my innocence and that comforting and totally irrational belief that these kinds of things happen only to the other guy, and I’ve never been the same since.” 

(5) comments

Staff
Hans Laetz

PCH at Topanga Cyn was three lanes eastbound, stopped completely. Fire trucks had one lane westbound. It was a mess.

jadair18

I was 6 and still remember the day my mom picked my up from Webster with the horse trailer. wow how time flys

3327sumac

While our fire department developed a improved strategies based on the 1993 and other past conflagrations and now tries to attack fires with force as soon as they break out this strategy can be overwhelmed in extreme Santa Ana wind conditions that created the 1993 Topanga Fire. Everyone in Malibu, Topanga, and adjoining areas is at risk unless we also develop a plan to reduce the fuel level on the hillsides and canyons. Goats were used before WWII in the Valley and until recently on Catalina but that is just one solution. While fuel reduction will have an impact on the animals that live here, it will have a disparate impact. Some animals will benefit and others not, but all one has to do is drive up to Pt. Magu to see firsthand the impact of last year's fire there. Almost every animal in that area was incinerated. If one drives around the Santa Monica Mountains there are areas such as in Topanga where the brush level is so high it makes a disaster even larger than 1993 seem likely. But it doesn't need to be that way.

doctorbond

The dates are one day off. The fire began on November 2, and swept down the coast that same day. I know. I was there. Please correct. It is painful to see such a glaring mistake if you were one of the fire victims.

Bajabill

After evacuating to Santa Monica, I would call my house to see if my answering machine would pick up. Thankfully it did. The fire was coming down to Carbon Beach and I felt it was time to go. Very scary moment in life when you are completely at Mother Natures will and power.

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