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Firefighters get a big pat on the back

Malibu residents who survived a Jan. 8 brush fire express gratitude to those who put it out.

January 19, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The site was the same, but the scene was vastly different Thursday on Malibu Road as firefighters gathered under calm, clear skies for a party neighbors threw to thank them.

Ten days before, a brush fire whipped by high winds destroyed or damaged 11 homes along the seaside strip of multimillion-dollar mansions. But the banner across the front of Jane and Howard Smith's house, which barely escaped destruction in the fast-moving nighttime blaze, said it all: "Thank You Firefighters for Saving Malibu Road."

In a nearby courtyard, a long buffet table bulged with roasted chicken, broiled salmon and trays of steaming mashed potatoes, cooked up and served courtesy of a local catering company. For three hours, the 80-plus firefighters who responded to the Jan. 8 blaze attended the dinner party in shifts to ensure their fire stations remained staffed.

"It's the least we can do for all they did for us," said Howard Smith, whose home received only minor damage to a guest bedroom.

Some of Smith's neighbors to the north were not so lucky. Among them was his next-door neighbor, whose one-of-a-kind, handcrafted house with a turret and a decorative cannon out front was burned to the ground.

A home owned by actress Suzanne Somers and her husband also was destroyed.

The fire would have spread to the Smiths' house and possibly to others if not for the efforts of three firefighters who kept the flames from the house next door at bay for at least two hours by creating a "wall of water" with their hoses while they waited for utility crews to arrive to turn off a broken gas line.

"That house was fully engulfed, and our job was to make sure we kept it from spreading," said Chris Avezzie, a firefighter with Los Angeles County's Station 65 in Agoura Hills, as he looked at the black skeleton of the burned structure. "It took everyone working together."

Meanwhile, other firefighters worked to keep the blaze contained within an undeveloped parcel across the road, where the fire started.

Although firefighters often receive gifts of food from grateful residents, they had never seen anything quite like the spread offered by the Smiths and the Monrose Catering Co., owned by longtime Malibu residents Richard and Donna Chesterfield.

"The community is pretty welcoming to the firefighters when we do this kind of thing, but usually it's a fruit basket or cookies and cake," said Mike McFaul of Station 65.

Still, as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the reverie was leavened by the scent of smoke that still hung in the air. Some could not help but think that if not for these men and women in blue who were doing what they were trained to do, the outcome could have been different.

"They saved my house," said Malibu Road resident Ann Walker. "They're wonderful. They're miracle workers."

amanda.covarrubias

@latimes.com

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