1 killed, several injured in 1,200-acre Calif. fire
Hundreds of homes are evacuated as flames move from hills to the beachfront
By Scott Glover and Betina Boxall
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2007 The Los Angeles Times
MALIBU, Calif. — Santa Ana winds gusting to hurricane force in some hilltop areas caused one death and fueled nearly a dozen brush fires across Southern California today, including a 1,200-acre blaze in the Malibu Hills that forced evacuation of hundreds of homes and destroyed several landmarks, including the famous Castle Kashan and a church.
The firestorms raced through dry growth in a chain of firestorms stretching from the forestlands of north Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.
In San Diego County, where two major fires erupted, one person was reported killed and eight injured in the fast-moving Harris Fire along the rugged U.S.-Mexico border. By midafternoon the Harris Fire had scorched 3,000 acres and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in an area about 75 miles east of downtown San Diego. The person killed and four of those burned were thought to be undocumented migrants walking northward across the hilly terrain, officials said.
Four firefighters were also injured in a "flash-over" when fire roared over their vehicle. The four were airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center burn center. Their condition was not released.
The Canyon Fire, near Malibu Canyon and Piuma roads, began at 4:50 a.m. Downed power lines were a possible cause of the fire, which quickly fanned out in several directions through the hillsides along Pacific Coast Highway, engulfing the Malibu Presbyterian Church, at least three homes and two commercial structures. Nine other homes sustained moderate to minor damage, and four businesses at the Colony Creek Shopping Center reported damage to the exterior and roof.
More than 500 firefighters were on the blaze with as many as 1,000 on the way. No injuries to residents or firefighters were reported, but fire officials were bracing for a long night and predicted that the fierce winds could intensify this evening.
"The wind is clearly a tremendous challenge to the firefighters," Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. "They are doing all they can to protect structures. We've heard the winds are going to increase tonight and we are very concerned about that."
Mandatory evacuations had been declared in Malibu Canyon, Sweetwater Canyon, Puerco Canyon and Monte Nido. Given the unpredictable nature of the winds, "we want everyone in the area to start getting prepared" to evacuate, Freeman said.
It could take two days or longer to control the fire, the chief said. A change in wind direction could pose a large threat.
"There will be literally thousands of homes threatened at one time or another," Freeman said. "We've heard the winds are going to increase tonight and we are very concerned about that."
The owner of Castle Kashan, Lilly Lawrence, the daughter of an exiled Iranian oil minister and the goddaughter of Aristotle Onassis, was trapped inside her sprawling home with a house guest as the building burned around 6:30 a.m.
"They couldn't leave because the fire was blowing through the canyon. It was too dangerous," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Dennis Cross.
Firefighters tried to save the home, but flames managed to spread under the building's foundation and there was little they could do, Cross said. The main house was destroyed. A stone facade around the courtyard is all that remained. Ten-foot-high flames continued to shoot up from the rubble well into the afternoon. Lawrence, known as Princess Lilly, managed to escape the building sometime in the morning.
Connie James and her husband, Bernie, who both work at Pepperdine University, lost their designer home in the small, close-knit neighborhood of Malibu Knolls.
She and her husband awoke about 5 a.m. and realized a fan in their bedroom had stopped working. The power had failed, and they smelled smoke. Soon, firefighters arrived, warning residents to evacuate. The couple scrambled to collect valuables, along with computers, photographs and their two border collies. "We just feel blessed to get anything out under these circumstances," said James, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.
Other fires were burning in the forest near Castaic in northern Los Angeles County; near Agua Dulce, also in northern L.A. County; and in San Bernardino County.
In the Agua Dulce fire, as many as 40 homes were threatened, and 500 acres had burned. Two hundred firefighters were on the scene.
The other San Diego County blaze, known as the Witch Creek Fire, had burned 3,500 acres by midafternoon and forced dozens of homes to evacuate. The American Red Cross was established several shelters. No injuries were reported.