Spitting Hot Fire: Malibu Wildfires and the Santa Anas

Malibu wildfire in 2007. Photo: Ron Reiring/flickr/Creative Commons

“To live with the Santa Ana, is to accept consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior,” reflected Joan Didion in 1968. Quoting Raymond Chandler, she noted the environment’s deterministic control over Californians. On nights when the Santa Ana gust through the homes of Angelenos, Chandler asserted, “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”1 Though the winds alone might have inspired unpredictable behavior in people, every year from October through January, the Santa Ana’s love affair with fire existentially pokes Los Angeles like a carving knife to a husband’s neck.

Residing in 1970s Malibu, Didion witnessed firsthand nature’s towering presence in Los Angeles lives. Santa Ana winds and their attendant wildfires went beyond loss of property and life, they warped the psyche.2 Santa Ana fires, the California writer pointed out, blazed in 1961 (Bel Air), 1964 (Santa Barbara), and in 1966-67, a fire that spread into the San Gabriel mountains consuming eleven lives in the process. However, Malibu occupies a special place in California’s flammable ecology. “Malibu … is the wildfire capital of North America and, possibly, the world,” Mike Davis pointed out in 1999’s “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster.” “Fire here has a relentless staccato rhythm, syncopated by landslides and floods.”3

The 1956 Malibu fire consumed 26,000 acres, 100 homes, and one life. Two years later another blaze destroyed 74 homes, but spared lives. Unfortunately, twelve years later in 1970, another wildfire killed ten people and decimated over 400 homes. Moreover, one could easily go back decades earlier to the 1930 Decker Canyon inferno that, facilitated by a “fierce Santa Ana,” engulfed 15,000 acres and, as Mike Davis notes, left firefighters facing a five mile wall of flame with little more to do than “save their own lives.”4 More fires followed in 1935 (30,000 acres), 1938 (14,500 acres), and twice in 1943, in October and November (over 20,000 acres in total). This is to say nothing of smaller outbreaks like Topanga Canyon’s 1961 wildfire (8,000 acres).

In 1978, just after Didion had sold her Malibu house but had yet to move out, a brush fire in the San Fernando Valley, spread by the Santa Ana, carried the fire over 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast. Aided by 100 mile-per-hour winds, the wildfire jumped the Pacific Coast Highway. Temperatures reached 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. “Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air,” Didion recounted. “Houses did not explode but imploded as in a nuclear strike.”5 In the end, the 1978 fire scorched 25,000 acres, destroyed 230 homes, and claimed two lives. This year marks the 35 years since of the Agoura-Malibu Firestorm of 1978, and twenty since the devastating 1993 Malibu conflagration. Moreover, in the wake of Arizona’s recent wildfire tragedy in which 19 skilled wilderness firefighters lost their lives, Malibu’s history, as noted by Davis, reminds us of the dangers not only for homeowners and residents, but for those battling the recurring flames.

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Malibu brush fire seen from across Roosevelt Highway is threatening Malibu Inn and Malibu film star colony, October 28, 1935 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Didion described the fires, earthquakes, and mudslides of Los Angeles as “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” its violence and unpredictably wreaking havoc on the frayed nerves of Southern Californians.6 Still, for all her brilliance, Didion seemed to assign blame for Los Angeles’ “weather of catastrophe,” specifically the mercurial Santa Ana winds and their nefarious influence, to nature alone, a point Davis places under great scrutiny in “The Ecology of Fear” and that the recent Arizona fires also question. As of 2010, 98.5 million people resided in 43.7 million homes located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where houses “mix or border flammable vegetation.” Malibu’s wildfire history provides a useful point of reference for Western America’s seasonal threat.

Just before the massive 1930 Decker Canyon fire, the legendary architect and landscape designer Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. had suggested, in great part due to the area’s tendency to burn, public ownership of 10,000 acres of many of the most attractive beaches and mountains that lay between Topanga and Point Dume. Olmsted’s attempt amounted to what is known as “fire hazard zoning,” which, at the risk of summarizing too simplistically, amounts to establishing greater distances between forests and subdivisions. Real estate forces proved too powerful however, as developers’ formidable enthusiasm for expansion into Malibu’s coastal areas overwhelmed Olmsted’s vision. Despite three more fires in the 1930s, the city passed on an 1938 opportunity to buy 17,000 acres of land in return for waving $1.1 million in delinquent taxes from the bankrupt Rindge Estate, forcing the owner, “Queen of Malibu” May Rindge, to put it on the auction block where developers and others descended.7 With more development, fires threatened more property and more lives.

Of course, with California’s population boom and suburban expansion, fires grew increasingly common. Throughout the 1980s, not counting national parks and military installations, the state endured 10,000 fires annually. With more and more suburban development occurring in firebelts, in designated areas known to be susceptible to periodic fires, costs have risen and homes have burned. Since the state began to document homes and residences consumed by wildfire in 1923, two thirds of all those destroyed did so in 1980 or after.8 Malibu kept up with this pace, witnessing blazes in 1982 (44,000 acres and 17 homes in Paradise Cove) and 1985 (over 11,000 acres), though the source of the latter, really a combination of two fires, was later proved to be arson. Of course, then came 1993.

“This is Hell dude … I’m expecting to see Satan come out at anytime now,” one retreating resident told the Los Angeles Times, as one of Malibu’s worst wildfires torched the ever vulnerable community. The exodus from Malibu provided a tragic and unusual scene as the odd movie star fled amid a sea of relatively common folk. Beginning on November 2, seven days of fire singed over 16,000 acres, left 769 homes in ash, and resulted in three deaths. Private property damages reached $208,000,000; public property a much smaller but still significant $10,800,000.

Malibu fire of December 27, 1956 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Malibu fire of December 27, 1956 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

If Didion suggested Angelenos lay vulnerable to the psychosis of natural disaster, so too do their neighbors in Orange County. The aftermath of the 1993 fire demonstrated its ability to shape public perceptions regionally. In its carcinogenic wake, overzealous efforts to defend against similar disasters led to the demonization of environmental activists, immigrants, the homeless, and endangered species, whose federal habitat protection some observers equated with fire hazard.9 Some O.C. radio personalities spoke of the Sierra Club as “arson’s fifth column.” A reward for the Malibu arsonist, buoyed by private contributions, rose to $350,000.10

Everywhere SoCal residents saw potential arsonists, even among those dedicated to fighting arson. In May of 1994, two Los Angeles firefighters endured damaging and false accusations that they stood responsible for one of the two main fires that made up the conflagration. The father of one of the men called the investigation “Khafkaesque.” Friends suggested that downed power lines had started everything, not the accused. Venice resident Robert Selman, who lived near the fire’s flashpoint, concurred with the assessment. “The fire started right after the power went out, which is an amazing coincidence,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “And a power wire right above where the fire started is still hanging there.”

Three years later Selman appeared psychic, or at the very least extremely observant, when investigators linked faulty power line maintenance to Con Ed Southern California. Even worse, executives had withheld and ultimately destroyed evidence that connected Con Ed with not only the 1993 incident, but several others including an October 1996 Malibu fire.11

In the intervening period between the fire and the 1997 discovery, Malibu focused its ire on activists who wanted to increase public access to local beaches. Some more strident residents, Davis argues, demanded greater access restrictions to mountain roads in periods of fire danger and conflated open beaches with freedom for arsonists.

More critical outside observers argued that Malibu’s development unfairly burdened taxpayers. After all, through the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements Plan (California FAIR Plan), homeowners could obtain insurance in areas that, due to vulnerability to wildfire, could not be otherwise insured. Passed in 1968, the plan originally focused on providing insurance to redlined urban communities. Inner city homeowners and businesses unable to obtain insurance due to the combination of racially discriminatory federal policies and private industry practices would be able to do so. Later, legislators expanded the plan to include those living in “hard to insure fire risk areas.” By November of 1993, California FAIR plan covered 26,000 homes in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains at an average of $718,000 per home, with an average annual premium of $715. A house on Melrose Avenue, near a fire station one writer noted, would require a $600 premium.

Fire truck is shown battling a fresh blaze that broke out near Malibu, 1943 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Fire truck is shown battling a fresh blaze that broke out near Malibu, 1943 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

As a result, critics asserted homeowners in fire prone areas paid too little when compared to the risk. Moreover, with a movement afoot to compensate Malibu residents “beyond the limits of their individual policies,” and in the wake of the 1992 riots, this kind of policy raised questions about equity. “If Malibu residents get higher payouts, what about the thousands of Los Angeles store owners who had only bare-bones Fair Plan coverage and received no upgrades for their policies after the 1992 riots?” asked the L.A. Times’ Thomas S. Mulligan. Mike Davis wondered why wildfires in Malibu drew so much attention when those in poorer inner city Westlake, an area long subject to residential fires as result of lax regulation and irresponsible landlords, garnered so little. Eleven days after the 1993 wildfire, a downtown residential hotel went up in flames, killing three and critically burning 12 others. Unlike Malibu, the Mexican and Guatemalan workers living in the run down hotel failed to attract the gaze of local newscasters let alone FEMA.12

At the time, television coverage exacerbated tensions over such issues. “These are very expensive houses,” noted one KCAL reporter. “And officials tell me each lot is worth several million dollars. So a lot out here is at stake.” Howard Rosenberg acerbically asked, “[I]s there a correlation between tragedy and property values?” Undoubtedly, Malibu contained and continues to house its share of renters and average folk. Plenty of people, Robin Abcarian pointed out in a 1995 column, lived “cheek to jowl” in Malibu shanties “in exchange for the privilege of being able to gaze out the window at one of the most magnificent natural tranquilizers the world has to offer: the rolling, hypnotically beautiful Pacific Ocean.” Even a recent New York Times article noted as much, but whatever one’s economic and proprietary status, some critics saw flaws in protecting property against inevitable fires. Years later Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, among others, wondered aloud just why we insured such areas. “If these Malibu residences that are periodically destroyed were in a 20-year floodplain, they would never have been rebuilt or reinsured,” he opined in 1999.

More than a few Malibu residents expressed dismay at what they perceived to be unfair local coverage. “They have forsaken our constitutional rights, and have shown a shocking insensitivity to [our] traumatic situation,” argued one such resident.13 Even as subsequent natural disasters visited the community, Malibu natives like Summer Stevens defended their decision. “We endure fires, floods, slides and more. And yet we stay, each person for his or her own reason. And no one has the right to call that decision wrong.” Alanna Niles, who along with her husband had lost their home in the 1993 fire, agreed. Even after 36 years their marriage and connection to the community happily persisted: “We still have a love affair with Malibu.”

Aftermath of the Malibu fires of December, 1956 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Aftermath of the Malibu fires of December, 1956 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Predictably, other fires followed: the aforementioned 1996 fire in October and three more in 2007 (January, October, and November). As noted, the 1996 blaze could be laid at the feet of Con Ed, while the October 2007 fire resulted from the toppling of three utility poles under the purview of several businesses, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint, Con Ed, and telecommunications company Next G Networks. Next G agreed to a $14.5 million settlement divided between an $8.5 million contribution to California’s general fund and $6 million to inspect its connections to other poles in the region. In addition, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint paid $4 million each for their own culpability.

Unfortunately, the November fire, argued aggrieved homeowners like Paul and Sara Grisanti, started as result of a handful of late night revelers whose carelessness led to the inferno that destroyed 50 homes and produced $100 million in property damage. Paul Grisanti, a real estate agent, blamed lax enforcement by the state Department of Parks and Recreation. “They’ve received numerous complaints from residents in the area about people partying up there and drinking … at night after the park is supposedly closed.”

“It’s hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination,” asserted Joan Didion.14 Raymond Chandler believed the Santa Ana carried malevolence to the bedrooms of Southern California, and we know it brings fire to even the most decadent of homes. Though some might argue the winds ferry the highly flammable idiocy of drunken beachgoers, the dangerous militancy of radical environmentalists, or the dysfunction of the homeless to the homes and hills of places like Malibu, one might also argue that they simply breathe terrible life into the spark of conflict emitted when residential development rubs up against, and in this case also fuels, recurring events of nature. Much as it has for decades, the burning will continue, but so to will the recriminations.

1 Joan Didion, Slouching toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1968) pg. 217-218.
2 Ibid, pg. 220.
3 Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, New York: Vintage Books, 1999) pg. 97.
4 Mike Davis, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, New York: Vintage Books, 1999) pg. 104.
5 Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979) pgs. 222-223.
6 Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, pg. 220-221.
7 Davis, The Ecology of Fear, pg. 105.
8 Ibid, pg. 143.
9 Ibid, pg. 134.
10 Ibid, pg. 131.
11 Ibid, pg. 137.
12 Ibid, pg. 130.
13 Ibid, pg. 135.
14 Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, pg. 220.

This article was originally published on KCET Departures under the Intersections column in July 2013.