A string of dangerous brush fires exploded along the dry slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu on Monday, destroying several homes and driving canyon residents from their homes as Santa Ana winds gusted up to 50 m.p.h. and whipped the flames to the Pacific, where they threatened Pepperdine University and the exclusive Malibu Colony.
The Pepperdine area blaze grew dramatically late in the day, crossed a ridge and charged down to Pacific Coast Highway, where it destroyed several plant nurseries. Five homes were burned in the 24900 block of that major coastal artery.
Flames reportedly scorched the home of the university president, Dr. David Davenport, and burned to within a short distance of student dormitories. There were rumors among fleeing students that the president's home had burned and that faculty condominiums were afire, but county fire officials said nothing on campus was destroyed.
Mike Adams, vice president for university affairs, said that students, staff and faculty members had been evacuated safely and that some would be moving back onto campus later in the evening. The university will operate normally today, he said.
"There has been some limited damage to the university's grounds," Adams said, "but we feel very fortunate that there was no damage beyond that."
As flames reached to within a quarter of a mile of the Pepperdine campus, students began to pack their bags and leave.
Along Pacific Coast Highway, residents watched anxiously as the fire front moved down the hillsides toward Malibu Colony, where many film figures have beach homes.
At least four homes and a garage were reported destroyed in Decker Canyon as an even larger fire swept through that area.
Fires also erupted in Box Canyon in the Santa Susana Pass area near the Ventura County line, in Agoura, in the La Tuna Canyon area near Sunland and in the Angeles National Forest west of Mt. Baldy Village. Still others broke out in Ventura County, including one between Ojai and Santa Paula that destroyed six structures and was threatening others.
And shortly after 10 p.m., yet another blaze erupted, this time in the Montecito Heights area of Los Angeles, east of the Pasadena Freeway. Twenty city Fire Department engine companies and three helicopters pounced on the flames in the 500 block of East Fenn Street, but five structures, including at least two residences, were destroyed before the 15-acre fire was contained, officials said. No serious injuries were reported.
One man died of an apparent heart attack while watering down the roof of his home in Box Canyon, authorities said. There were no other reports of fatalities. One firefighter was reported injured in the Malibu area.
By late Monday evening, the erratic winds had calmed for the night and most of the fires were relatively quiet, but Capt. Gordon Pearson, county fire information officer, said the winds are expected to return today and it is anticipated that humidity will be about 2%--a perilously low reading.
After a strategy meeting by fire officials, Pearson said that a fire retardant chemical was being stockpiled for a "massive" assault at daybreak today with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft on the two major fires still burning out of control in the Malibu area.
The largest of those blazes had flared in the Decker Canyon area from near Mulholland Highway to the ocean, crossing Pacific Coast Highway at Leo Carrillo State Beach and burning more than 3,500 acres of dry brush.
Third Malibu Fire
The other fire, the Piuma blaze, was the one that marched down on Pepperdine and toward Malibu Colony, reaching Pacific Coast Highway and burning homes and structures west of the Malibu Civic Center. It had burned over 2,000 acres by Monday night.
A third Malibu area fire, which began in Malibu Creek State Park not far from the Piuma fire, never reached dangerous proportions and was virtually contained after burning about 75 acres.
As is common when the Santa Anas gust in the Southland, firefighting efforts were hampered by the erratic winds, extremely dry chaparral indigenous to the hillside areas and the lack of moisture in the air. The humidity dropped to as low as 9% Monday, the National Weather Service said.
Until the threats to Pepperdine and Malibu Colony, the principal danger was posed by the fire that broke out about midday near Mulholland Highway and Encinal Canyon Road. It was driven by wind gusts on a widening front south and west in the Decker Canyon area to jump Pacific Coast Highway at Leo Carrillo State Beach.
In addition to the four houses and a garage had been destroyed in the Decker Canyon area, a mobile home park was threatened.
The 3,000-acre Decker Canyon fire advanced on a widening front down the slopes to jump Pacific Coast Highway about 3:30 p.m. as fire officials massed personnel and equipment in the area in a desperate effort to stop the flames. Four strike teams from various cities were deployed along the beach.