All night long the flames had raced seaward down the canyons of Malibu, licking the coastal ridgelines in a steady march toward the dense, bluff-top neighborhoods of Pacific Palisades. Carbon, Las Flores, Big Rock and Tuna--one by one they were transformed into superheated swirls of orange cinders.
Finally, just before dawn Wednesday, Topanga Canyon Boulevard remained the only major barrier between the firestorm and the pricey fringes of the city. If the Malibu Feed Bin fell, so too might the palatial Getty Museum and the home-studded hills around it.
It was at Topanga Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway that hundreds of fire crews from up and down the state drew a line in the sand. With skill, bravery and a blessed shift of the wind, they managed to thwart the fire's steady spread toward Los Angeles, at least for most of the day Wednesday.
The line was held for nearly 10 hours, but a shift in winds caused it to be breached many miles up the canyon. The fire raised a threat to dense hillside neighborhoods on the western edge of Los Angeles until firefighters beat it back.
The pitched battle by the ocean was one of the most dramatic episodes in a night of feverish efforts to slow an inferno that was controlled more by the terrain and shifting winds than by the thousands of firefighters along its flanks.
On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, fire crews worked to save most homes and businesses along Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard. They threw everything they had at the firestorm.
They stationed engines along miles of roadway. They doused the brush and trees with water and fire-retardant foam. They set backfires. And when the flames finally drew close to their lines, they fought with everything from hand-held hoses to helicopters.
At 1 a.m. Wednesday, many of the troops were already at their posts.
A quarter-mile above Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the crew of Engine 63 from the Kern County Fire Department sat on a boulder eating tepid In-N-Out burgers and barbecued potato chips delivered by county workers. Their assignment was to protect the sleek Pizarro Design Center on PCH, as well as the ridge across the roadway. Just downhill at the crucial intersection was a funky commercial strip of fish restaurants and an old motel and market.
The Bakersfield team had hooked up their hoses to a hydrant outside the design center and looked over the building for possible problems. When the time came, they knew exactly what they were going to do. They would drench the glass and stucco building, string their hoses across the highway and spray 1,200 gallons a minute on the opposite hill to keep the fire from rushing down the ridge onto the structures lining PCH.
They waited patiently, hauling out their lawn chairs and catching naps atop their fire engine. They were already weary from hosing down oceanfront houses in the Big Rock area earlier in the night--a drill repeated time and again by hundreds of fire crews for miles along PCH.
Hours passed. For a time it even appeared as if the blaze might be halted at Tuna Canyon with a combination of backfires and dying winds. "I want to use up my water," lamented Firefighter Tammy Lindley.
Shortly afterward, she got her wish. About 3 a.m., the winds moved seaward, growing stronger. Flames danced atop nearby crest lines. Below, strike teams composed of five engines each stood sentinel on PCH, each assigned to an individual structure. A San Gabriel Valley crew doused the Topanga Beach Cantina. An Orange County team took care of the Topanga Ranch Motel and Market. And so on.
Two bulldozers on flatbed trucks headed up Topanga Canyon Boulevard, already lined with fire engines for nearly 11 miles into the mountains.
In front of the feed store, two South Bay strike teams waited. In the back, some firefighters stood by a pile of pumpkins and gazed at the wildfire on the horizon. "It's just making it's natural progression toward more fuel," said one with an air of resignation.
Nearby was the store's petting zoo, empty save for a hog. "He's not a happy camper," noted the fireman. "He thinks he's going to be breakfast."
The battle began in earnest behind the market, where Los Angeles County firefighters had stretched hoses along a creek flanked by a number of aging wooden houses and highly flammable eucalyptus and palm trees.
On the hillsides, dry chaparral crackled as it was swallowed by orange flames. Tornado-like funnels of cinders spun skyward. The fire was shaped by the wind, hugging the ground or leaping 100 feet into the air as the air currents changed.
"It looks bad. My God, I don't think we're going to make it," said an anguished Chuck Sexton, 62, carrying his dog Spice to his car on Old Malibu Road above the market.
Los Angeles County Firefighter Ruben Torres disagreed. "It's going to get hot here, but it's not going to hit these homes. We're wetting the hell out of it," said Torres as his truck pumped water to two other rigs and several hose lines stretched across the road.