Malibu Residents Return Home After Human-Caused Blaze Destroyed 53 Homes

Residents began making their way back along winding canyon roads Sunday to see whether their homes survived a wind-driven wildfire a day earlier that scorched thousands of acres of hillside and 53 houses.

Several homes along a road near the source of the blaze had been reduced to blackened wrecks, while many others were virtually unscathed.

"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."

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In all, Saturday's fast-moving wildfire destroyed 53 homes and 27 outbuildings, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said. Thirty-four other homes were damaged, and as many as 14,000 people fled the blaze, which was whipped up by hot, dry Santa Ana winds.

Throughout the day Sunday, the weather worked in firefighters' favor. A cool breeze in from the Pacific Ocean kept temperatures low and moisture levels high.

"The weather is perfect for us," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Glen Goulet.

Even controlled fires, ignited late Sunday to clear remaining scrub, burned lazily.

The fire, which scorched 4,720 acres — more than 7 square miles — since early Saturday, was about 70 percent contained, with full containment expected Monday, said Ron Haralson, Los Angeles County fire inspector.

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

Sheriff's deputies and bloodhounds headed into the area, which 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 lighted a campfire.

"I've been up there and seen howling groups of teenagers drinking," Ricardo Means, 57, said of the rugged spot near the top of his winding street, where blackened beer bottles littered the ground.

When the winds began whipping up again overnight Saturday, the seaside enclave was still recovering from a fire last month that destroyed six homes, two businesses and a church.

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

Another resident who lost his home was Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, property records showed. The musician, whose real name is Michael Balzary, had bought another home in Malibu last year, but the one destroyed was for sale for $4.8 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

David Swain, 77, an electrical engineer, went through the remnants of his home of 31 years, which had stood on a hillside with sweeping views of the Pacific. The only possessions that survived were the clothes he was wearing and his pets — two dogs and a ferret — that he took with him when he evacuated early Saturday.

While other residents appeared shell-shocked as they picked through their charred homes, Swain remained upbeat.

"You can focus on what you lost, or you can focus on what you are going to do," said Swain, who already was making plans to rebuild. "It's a beginning."

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.

Malibu, with homes tucked into deep and narrow canyons along 27 miles of coast at 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 love living here. Locals cite a sense of community, quiet compared with Los Angeles, and proximity to nature.

"It's just tranquillity after madness of the city," said stem-cell researcher Denis Rodgerson, whose house survived. "It's a nice place."