Weary firefighters began packing up their gear, burned-out churchgoers prayed for the strength to rebuild, and one isolated canyon town threw a picnic for firefighters as the blaze that ravaged the Santa Monica Mountains finally died out Sunday.
By 6 p.m., firefighters said they had completely contained the disastrous 18,000-acre arson fire that killed three people and destroyed 323 homes and 112 other structures in Calabasas, Malibu and Topanga.
About 570 engine companies, half of what the fire had commanded at its peak, and 216 camp crews with hand tools worked through the day Sunday in the coastal hills near Topanga Canyon Boulevard, county fire officials said. The 5,465 firefighters and support personnel doused hot spots, cleared brush or waited for discharge orders.
Mop-up crews armed with rakes and shovels scraped a three-foot-wide swath of bare earth around the fire. No injuries were reported.
As the embers died away during the afternoon, the crews were dismissed. About 2,000 firefighters and support personnel in 193 fire engines remained on overnight duty, monitoring the massive but smoldering fires, officials said.
Meanwhile, in Malibu, surfers rode the waves and gawkers clogged the Pacific Coast Highway, peering at ashen hillsides and bluff-top ruins.
More than 100 residents, including many who had lost homes in last week's fires, gathered for an interdenominational service at the Malibu Presbyterian Church near Pepperdine University. One floor below the worshipers, Red Cross workers--some wearing "I Survived the Flood" T-shirts--handed out food and clothing to burned-out locals.
At one point during the service, the congregation gave a standing ovation to a trio of local firefighters in attendance. Parishioners recited the names of those whose homes were destroyed and asked God to help them rebuild.
"Give us the strength as we face the paperwork, the phone calls and the inconveniences of starting over again," said the Rev. Anne Broyles of Malibu United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Susan Klein of St. Aidans Episcopal Church said she was inspired by Vietnamese Buddhists who came from Riverside to deliver care packages.
"We all feel so buoyed inside by the goodness and generosity," she said. "Tragedies are . . . horrible, yet, a wonderful time to focus on what really matters in life."
Outside, firefighter patrols continued their 24-hour scrutiny of the blackened acres, cruising fire roads and alert for a flare-up or hint of smoke.
"Fire can travel for weeks underground through the roots," said Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector Steve Knevelbaard. "Embers inside of a tree or an old log all of a sudden can pop up. Two weeks after fire, we'll get calls from people who spot smoke."
In the hidden Santa Monica Mountains hamlet of Monte Nido, three miles north of Malibu, about 200 residents--two-thirds of the village--showed up at a festive picnic to murmur thank-yous and shake hands with several dozen firefighters, including some who helped preserve the community as the ferocious fire bore down on it last Tuesday.
The community--nestled in rocky mountains that appear in the opening credits of the "M.A.S.H" TV series--was evacuated Tuesday morning as the blaze threatened expensive homes and horse ranches owned by film and music industry executives, actors, lawyers and contractors.
But, due to firefighters' efforts and a fortuitous change in wind direction, the village was left virtually unscathed.
An ungrammatical and misspelled sign hung by one Monte Nido resident on a green fire engine parked across the road from the exclusive Saddle Peak Lodge restaurant summed up local sentiment:
"Thanks Firefighters. Your Tired--But Your Heros."
Residents plied firefighters with homemade pasta salad, fried chicken, bundt cake, pickles, brownies and other goodies as they peppered them with questions about firefighting tactics and equipment.
In return, the firefighters--some in crisply pressed blue uniforms and others in soot-smudged yellow jackets--told hair-raising fire tales, passed on fire-safety tips and thrilled children by letting them sit in the cab of a firetruck.
Several firefighters said they were surprised at the degree of appreciation shown by the residents, especially given their affluence. Firefighters said they usually get thanked after saving people's homes, but this was the first time they had been feted by an entire town.
Randy Hall, a walrus-mustached firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service said: "People told me, 'Hey, don't let the money thing make you think we're not regular people.' "
Times staff writer Vicki Torres contributed to this story.
* LANDMARK HOME GONE: The Malibu home of "Auntie Mame" playwright Jerome Lawrence was destroyed. F1