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.”