While brush fires continued to smolder around Southern California, two major blazes in the Malibu area were declared controlled Thursday, with fire officials crediting their tactics and a change in the weather for limiting the destruction.
The Piuma and Decker Canyon fires destroyed 11,400 acres and more than $1.3 million worth of property before the Santa Ana winds died down and firefighters were able to establish a line around the blazes to keep them from spreading.
But given the scope of the blazes and the vast acreage burned, fire officials are pleased that relatively few structures were burned during the four days that the flames raged through the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains above the Pacific.
"It was a combination of factors," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Pat Bradshaw. "We had a couple breaks with the wind, and we had the ability to move resources at a more rapid rate than in the past."
Instead of trying to contain the rapidly spreading flames, firefighters this time focused their efforts on keeping the blazes away from homes, Bradshaw said.
"History has taught us. Years of seeing the fires rush to the coast, no matter what we do, (has) taught us . . . that when the winds are blowing at 40, 50 or 60 m.p.h., you're not going to stop the fire, so the best we can do is protect structures," Bradshaw said. "Then, when we get a break in the weather and the winds die down, we can do a direct attack on the fire."
That break began Wednesday as changes in pressure gradients over the Southwest reversed the offshore flow of warm, dry desert air. The resulting onshore sea breezes brought increased humidity levels and cooler temperatures.
Bradshaw said the county Fire Department was better organized this year than in the past and began readying its firefighting teams and equipment as soon as the hot, dry Santa Ana winds signaled the start of brush fire season.
Strike teams composed of firefighters and equipment from cities throughout Southern California had already been organized for dispatch to threatened communities, Bradshaw said.
"The fire started Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, we had strike teams in Malibu from Downey, Gardena, Pasadena . . . a number of different cities," Bradshaw said.
Each housing tract in the fire area was assigned a strike team for protection, and isolated homes were given single engines to fight off the flames, he said.
"A number of times, the fire was threatening homes and (the strike teams) held it off," Bradshaw said. "It was really quite impressive."
More than 1,600 firefighters were battling the two blazes at their peak, with the county effort aided by equipment from "as far north as Sacramento and as far south as Riverside," Bradshaw said.
By Thursday, a crew of about 300 remained to douse hot spots, bringing the fire under control.
Both Malibu area fires are believed to have been started by arsonists, Bradshaw said.
Assume It's Man-Caused
"It's possible they may never find the cause," he said. "It could be a match, a cigarette. There might be no evidence. A lot of times we never really know exactly what caused it . . . though if you don't find a source, you have to assume it's man-caused."
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arson investigators combed through debris Thursday looking for evidence.
"We have some evidence, but none is conclusive," Sgt. Howard Rechtschaffen said. "There are a whole lot of reports coming in from witnesses at the scenes, and teams are out at each fire site, but we have no suspects yet."
The Malibu fires were part of a series of blazes fanned by Santa Ana winds that have burned more than 100,000 acres of dry brush in Southern California since Monday, damaging or destroying more than 20 buildings, injuring at least 10 firefighters and contributing to the death of one man who suffered a heart attack while trying to protect his home from the Box Canyon fire near Chatsworth.
One Out of Control
Of the fires that continued to burn Thursday, only the Ferndale-Wheeler Canyon fire in Ventura County, 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was still out of control.
Firefighters expect to have that blaze, which has burned more than 42,500 acres so far, contained by Sunday night. About 1,400 firefighters spent much of Thursday trying to stop the flames as they approached the Sespe Wildlife Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest. The area is a refuge for the California condor, which is near extinction.
The condors are not nesting in the sanctuary now, said Ventura County Fire spokeswoman LaVerne Atkinson. But the large birds depend on the small wildlife there for food.
Ironically, Atkinson said, the fire could provide long-term benefits to the condors by burning the brush and allowing new brush and grass to grow. That would attract more small wildlife and bolster the birds' currently sparse food supply, she said.
Gov. George Deukmejian proclaimed a state of emergency Thursday for Ventura County, because of the fires. The announcement said the declaration, requested by the county sheriff, is necessary before the state can apply for federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, which could include temporary housing, low-interest loans and individual and family grants. Damage assessments by county officials will be reviewed by the state Office of Emergency Services before a final decision is made on whether to apply for the federal funds.
Times staff writer Herbert Sample contributed to this article.