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Crews make progress against Malibu fire

Fire crews hoped mild temperatures and gentle winds Sunday would help them solidify gains against the sprawling wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Malibu, Calif.
Michael Balzary
Firefighters from Los Angeles County and Riverside County douse hotspots on Sunday at the home of Michael "Flea" Balzary, of the rock band "The Red Hot Chili Peppers," in Malibu, Calif.Dan Steinberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire crews hoped mild temperatures and gentle winds Sunday would help them solidify gains against the sprawling wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in this upscale coastal community.

Hot, powerful winds that fanned the blaze across 4,720 acres starting early Saturday were not expected Sunday, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson said.

The fire was about 40 percent contained, with few flames visible to the three water-dropping helicopters deployed over the fire zone, Haralson said.

"Winds have subsided considerably and we're making good headway," he said.

Fifty homes and two outbuildings were destroyed Saturday by the fast-moving wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds. Twenty-seven other homes were damaged and 10,000 to 14,000 people were evacuated.

By Sunday morning, skies had cleared and the column of smoke billowing over the hills had all but vanished. Aside from the dozens of fire trucks from all over California dotting Pacific Coast Highway, there was little evidence the fire still was burning.

Still, parts of the area remained under mandatory evacuation.

Ricardo Means, a 57-year-old writer who was evacuated with his wife from their home on Corral Canyon Road, said he did not know if his wooden house had survived the fire.

Since moving to Malibu in 1980, three major wildfires had approached his property, but he said he never wants to leave.

"It's such a beautiful place, it seems worth the price," Means said.

The seaside enclave had been recovering from last month's 4,565-acre Canyon Fire that destroyed six homes, two businesses and a church when the winds began whipping up again overnight Saturday.

Some residents whose property made it through last month's fire unscathed weren't so lucky this time.

"This time I lost," said a soot-covered Glen Sunyich, who watched his stucco and tile house he built in 1990 slowly burn to the ground. "It means that I didn't build it well enough."

Another resident who lost his home was Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary, property records showed.

Balzary had purchased another home in Malibu last year, but the one destroyed was for sale for $4.8 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Hundreds of firefighters and equipment from throughout the state had been positioned in Southern California for most of the week because of the predicted Santa Ana winds.

All of the homes were destroyed in the fire's initial Saturday morning surge before the winds slowed and firefighters gained a foothold. Full containment was expected by Tuesday, officials said.

Fifteen helicopters and 15 airplanes including a retardant-dropping DC-10 jumbo jet attacked from the air Saturday while 1,700 firefighters battled flames on the ground. Seven firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Investigators had determined that the fire, which broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway, was caused by humans, but had not determined if it was started intentionally, said county fire Inspector Rick Dominguez.

Malibu, with homes tucked into deep and narrow canyons along 27 miles of coast on the southern foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, is prone to Santa Ana-driven wildfires. Among them was a 1993 blaze that destroyed 388 structures, including 268 homes, and killed three people.

Saturday's fire was west of the areas of Malibu that burned in October.

Santa Ana winds
Santa Ana winds, triggered by high pressure over the Great Basin, blow into Southern California from the north and northeast, racing through the canyons and passes of the region's east-west mountain ranges and out to sea, pushing back the normal flow of moist ocean air.

For a time a hotspot flared several ridges behind Pepperdine University, but the campus did not appear to have been endangered. Helicopters used its broad lawn as a landing zone.

When the fire broke out, university officials told students to move to a campus shelter, although the school remained largely empty because of the holiday weekend.

Two high schools were set up to handle evacuees, but no one had come to one school and the other only had 20 people.