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Beefed-up crews were ready for Malibu blaze

After devastating wildfires in October, extra crews and gear were strategically placed in Southern California in planning that may have saved homes and lives when the Malibu Hills caught fire.
Image: A Super Scooper firefighting plane drops it load of water to put out hot spots in the hills above Malibu, Calif.
A SuperScooper firefighting plane drops water on hot spots in the hills above Malibu, Calif., on Monday. Firefighting equipment was positioned in the area a week before dangerous Santa Ana winds were forecast to return. Kevork Djansezian / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After getting caught short-handed a month ago, state officials positioned hundreds of firefighters, trucks and planes at strategic areas in a mobilization that may have saved homes and lives when a wildfire broke out in Malibu over Thanksgiving weekend.

Fifty-three homes were lost, but officials said it could have been worse if not for the preparations and a lucky break in the weather.

Fire officials routinely position crews in advance when hot, dry Santa Ana winds are forecast. But with memories of last month's devastating Southern California fires still fresh, the mobilization this time was even larger.

"All the elements were there for something really bad and catastrophic to happen. We wanted to be better safe than sorry," said Michael Richwine, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The planning for the Thanksgiving winds began more than a week ahead of time, with state, local and federal fire officials meeting to review maps and computer models of the projected winds and the moisture levels of vegetation.

Water content in shrubs and trees was below 40 percent — a critical level — and strong winds were forecast to last several days.

Crews, equipment were ready for battle
Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to locations across Southern California, with big concentrations in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

By Thanksgiving Day, the forestry department had more than 3,000 additional firefighters in place on 400 engines, 89 hand crews and 28 bulldozer crews, Richwine said.

"We do this quite frequently, but this one was just a little bigger than what we've done in the past because of the fuels and the winds," he said.

More than 100 aircraft were also waiting around the region, and dozens of inmates were ready to help clear fire lines. The Los Angeles County Fire Department, which took the lead in Malibu, had 100 extra workers on hand and eight aircraft — two 1,200-gallon SuperScoopers and six helicopters — at the ready, said Fire Inspector Sam Padilla.

A hand crew was on the scene within three minutes of the fire's start, and within 15 minutes, the six helicopters were up, he said. By Monday, the Malibu fire was 90 percent contained, with full containment expected later in the day.

Lessons learned
The fires in Southern California last month destroyed 2,196 homes and burned 800 square miles.

"The event in late October, we pre-positioned whatever we had and we moved it to Southern California," said Mike Jarvis, a spokesman for the forestry department. "But if you've got wind of the extreme nature that it was last month, that really restricts what you can do."

The winds in those fires whipped at up to 100 mph — twice as fast as top speeds over Thanksgiving — and lasted days instead of hours.

Because of the lighter winds this time, pilots were able to get up and stomp the flames down early, authorities said.

On the first full day of last month's wildfires, which stretched from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, 24 aircraft got off the ground, according to records. On Saturday, 30 aircraft dumped water and retardant on the Malibu blaze, which charred about eight square miles.

‘No different than a war’
Fire crews last time were spread thin by more than 250 small blazes that popped up around the region, which didn't happen this time, Jarvis said.

"It's no different than a war. When you have multiple fronts, your resources get stretched," said Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state forestry department. In Malibu "we could concentrate our air resources and jump on it early."

Nevertheless, the losses in Malibu were far greater this time than in October, when just six homes, two businesses and a church burned down in the city.

The Santa Anas are expected to kick up again later week, and fire officials are drawing up a new set of staging plans.

"It doesn't take much for things to start ripping again," Richwine said. "That's what we were preparing for."