Barry Farbenbloom spent Tuesday afternoon hosing ash and grit off his tile patio on Malibu Road and throwing out burned pillows from the outdoor furniture, remnants of the wind-propelled blaze that incinerated the houses of four neighbors the day before.
He pointed across the road to acres of hillside covered with the scorched remains of coastal sage scrub, below the fields where children play Little League ball and soccer.
"This would never have happened if that had been cleared," he said.
As arson investigators continued to seek the cause of Monday's fire, the issue of brush clearance was a hot topic. Most officials agreed that brush was less of a factor than the unusually low humidity -- 9% -- and blustery winds that provided prime inferno conditions.
"More so than anything, this was a wind-driven fire, with embers and sparks moving around and structures being made of wood," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Scott Ross.
Fire officials said the blaze started near the parking lot at Malibu Bluffs Park at Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon Road. The park includes athletic fields and the Michael Landon Community Center. Most of the rest of the area consists of hillsides with trails lacing through the brush.
Last year, the state Department of Parks and Recreation transferred a few acres of the 90-acre park to the city of Malibu and the rest to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Before the state turned over the parkland, it cleared brush in June and August, said Ron Schafer, the Parks Department's superintendent of the Angeles District.
"We clear brush to 100 feet from a structure," he said. The fire "was so hot and the wind so bad that I'm not sure what distance of brush clearance would have helped."
Farbenbloom said he saw no evidence that the hillsides had been cleared. He pointed just beyond the blackened area to an intact portion that featured dry scrub.
For the last two years, Farbenbloom said, his insurer -- California FAIR Plan -- has imposed surcharges of several hundred dollars on his policy. When he assured the plan's officials that he had cleared his property, they countered that the brush across the street came to within 100 feet of his house.
State lawmakers established the FAIR Plan in 1968 to provide basic insurance to property owners unable to obtain it in the open market. Many Malibu property owners are among its customers.
The juxtaposition of scrub-covered hills and multimillion-dollar beach mansions is further evidence of the tension between nature and development in Malibu.
Marcia Hanscom, an environmental activist who used to live in Malibu, said homeowners often suggest that natural public lands are too close to houses. Hanscom sees it the other way around.
"The California Coastal Commission, the city of Malibu and the county of L.A. all approve far too much unenlightened development," she said. Moreover, Hanscom said, those agencies allow nonnative or invasive plants, such as palm trees. Such vegetation, she said, helped drive the fire toward the houses.
Ann Walker, a 10-year resident of Malibu Road, said that her palm fronds caught fire but that firefighters were able to douse the flames and save her house.
"You know you have to keep your property cleaned, but we don't have that much property in front of our houses, and across the street is the state property," she said.
"They like to keep it natural ... but it seems like every four or five years there's a fire and it kind of burns down, and usually we're prepared for it, and we're ready for it, but this time it was so fast and so sudden."
Times staff writer Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.