The cycle of fire that has carved a wicked path across some of Southern California's most resplendent terrain subsided further Thursday as weary firefighters came close to containing the smoldering Malibu blaze and scores of residents returned to find nothing of their charred homes but a spectacular ocean view.
In a scene that has been repeated with disturbing regularity, canyon dwellers spent the day sifting through ashy rubble in search of keepsakes while others marveled at the capriciousness of an inferno that spared their homes but left them without neighbors.
Late Thursday, two charred bodies were found in a burned-out car in Malibu, apparently raising the death toll to three.
The bodies were found near Rambla Pacifico, in a remote area of Starlight Ranch behind Carbon Canyon, by a sheriff's helicopter pilot on patrol. He was assisting firefighters in checking burned-out areas when the car was seen, a Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman said. The pilot landed to investigate and found the bodies, which were so badly burned that he was unable to determine the sex of the victims.
The remains were discovered as firefighting crews were on the verge of containing the Calabasas/Malibu blaze.
Throughout the rugged hillsides above the fabled beach town, in enclaves both exclusive and rustic, friends greeted one another in the streets with tears and hugs. Now that the worst seemed to be over from Tuesday's explosive firestorm, which scorched 18,000 acres, destroyed 350 homes and claimed one life, there was succor amid the debris.
"Roasted lemons!" exclaimed Robyn Morgan, 55, as she picked through the blackened garden of her leveled Carbon Canyon home. "Lemon meringue pie!"
Meanwhile, investigators searching for clues at the flash point of the fire announced that they have officially ruled that the blaze is an act of arson, but do not have any suspects.
Several witnesses said they saw two men in a blue pickup speed away from the fire's first flames. Investigators confirmed that the two men were in the area, but said Thursday that they are considered witnesses, not suspects.
"We interviewed them. We let them go," said sheriff's Detective Jerome Beck, one of the investigators assigned to the case. "They're not considered suspects."
In an interview with The Times, one of the men in the truck said he and a friend were driving from the Malibu area toward the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday morning when they spotted a small brush fire on the hillside and tried to put it out before moving the truck farther down the hill. He said they returned on foot to help firefighters. He said he and his friend are volunteer firefighters.
"We were some of the first people on the scene," the man said. "We smelled smoke."
A day after dramatic fire battles were often thwarted by wind-whipped flames, the roller coaster Calabasas/Malibu blaze was 70% contained by Thursday morning and officials predicted it would be completely encircled by today.
One more home was consumed in Fernwood late Wednesday night, but the fire's eastward march was halted by water-dropping helicopters before it could climb beyond Topanga Canyon. As a precaution, strike teams remained stationed about 2 1/2 miles away in the communities of Palisades Highlands and Castellammare.
"With the wind doing what it is doing right now, we don't anticipate a problem," Los Angeles City Assistant Fire Chief Tony Ennis said. "But since we don't control the wind, we're going to be ready."
As forecasters predicted that moist ocean breezes would continue to replace the blistering Santa Ana winds, a sense of normality slowly returned to the picturesque community, which two days before had been engulfed in a tornado of searing embers and flying ash.
Blond, ponytailed surfers plunged into the sea. The message machine at Malibu Mammas, a domestic and nanny agency, was full of requests for weekend baby-sitters. Just as Catherine Alford, 27, returned to her beachfront apartment with her treasured collection of 700 Swatch watches, a UPS deliveryman pulled up in his truck.
"Alford?" he asked. It was a large package with another load of watches to add to her cache.
In an epilogue to the fire's first known fatality, Elsa, the Siamese cat that 41-year-old filmmaker Duncan Gibbins gave his life trying to save, was found huddled beneath his Topanga Canyon guest house by a sheriff's deputy on the lookout for looters and trespassers.
The cat, named after the lion in the movie "Born Free," was taken to an Agoura animal shelter, where her singed paws were bandaged.
"I heard this cat underneath the house, meowing. It looked like a little kitten," Deputy Steven Robinson said. "It wouldn't come to me so I went to get some water to coax it out. Finally it came out and jumped on top of my head."
Gibbins died Wednesday night in a burn center in Sherman Oaks. Earlier, the body of a woman who disappeared a year and a half of ago was uncovered by a brush fire near Point Mugu.