MALIBU, Calif. – Favorable weather and an aerial assault helped firefighters make progress against a blaze that destroyed dozens of homes along winding canyon roads, the second major fire here in as many months.
A cool breeze blowing in from the Pacific Ocean kept temperatures low and moisture levels high Sunday, while 30 aircraft repeatedly dropped fire retardant and water that snuffed out most of the flames.
The fire was 90 percent contained after burning about 4,900 acres. Fire officials said they hope to have the blaze surrounded by 6 p.m. Monday.
Residents made their way back Sunday to see if their homes were among the 53 that were burned to the ground. Several homes along Corral Canyon Road, which bore the brunt of the blaze, were reduced to blackened wrecks, while many others were virtually unscathed.
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"There's no rhyme or reason to it," said Frank Churchill, who returned home with his wife and four children to find his white stucco home largely undamaged, while three neighboring homes were leveled. "It doesn't make sense."
Thirty-four other homes were damaged and as many as 14,000 people were evacuated from the blaze, which was whipped up by hot, dry Santa Ana winds.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surveyed the damage and hugged Jennifer Grossman who returned from a trip to find her home destroyed.
"This is very, very sad," Schwarzenegger said to Grossman. "We're going to help you."
Malibu was still 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.
"You think it's over for the year, and then, it's here we go again," Montebello City Fire Capt. Fernando Peliaz said as his crew soaked down the still-smoldering remains of a home.
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.
Investigators said the fire, which broke out along a dirt road off a paved highway, was caused by humans, but they had not determined if it was started intentionally, county fire Inspector Rick Dominguez said.
Sheriff's deputies with bloodhounds were seen headed into the area that residents said is a popular spot for outdoor partying by young people. Several locals were convinced the fire was started by late-night revelers who may have lit a campfire.
"I've been up there and seen howling groups of teenagers drinking," Corral Canyon Road resident Ricardo Means, 57, said of the rugged spot near the far end of the winding road where blackened beer bottles could be seen littering the ground.
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. Despite the constant threat of wildfires and other natural hazards, residents seem to love living here. A sense of community, quietness compared to Los Angeles and proximity to nature are all cited by locals.
"It's just tranquility after madness of the city," said stem-cell researcher Denis Rodgerson, whose house survived. "It's a nice place."