California's Calabasas/Malibu Fire

Ken Koller recounts the devastating wildfire that raged for seven days in October 1996.


Calabasas/Malibu Fire Oct. 21-28, 1996 Origin: Eastbound 101 Freeway between Parkway Calabasas and Las Virgenes Road Cause: Downed power line Acres: 14,950 Structures lost: Six homes, two mobile homes, three vehicles. Firefighters: 4,049 Injuries: 16, including a Long Beach...


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Calabasas/Malibu Fire
Oct. 21-28, 1996

Origin: Eastbound 101 Freeway between Parkway Calabasas and Las Virgenes Road
Cause: Downed power line
Acres: 14,950
Structures lost: Six homes, two mobile homes, three vehicles.
Firefighters: 4,049
Injuries: 16, including a Long Beach firefighter who suffered a broken neck in an apparatus collision and six firefighters seriously burned when overrun by fire
Equipment & crews: 92 strike teams, 155 hand crews, 162 agencies, two Canadair SuperScooper aircraft., two Erickson Sky Crane helitankers, six fixed-wing tanker aircraft plus lead aircraft, six water-dropping helicopters
Residents evacuated: 1,000 plus

Once again, as in years past, flames roared down upon the city of Malibu, CA, as a wind-driven wildfire swept through the Malibu Canyon from the San Fernando Valley to the coast in just a few hours.

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Photo by Martin Nate Rawner/CFPA
Kern County, CA, Engine 41 awaits assignment at the staging area next to the Pacific Coast Highway as the fire makes its way over the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu Beach.


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Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Medical staff takes Glendale Fire Captain Bill Jensen from Los Angeles County Air 12 at the Sherman Oaks Burn Center.

Santa Ana Winds in excess of 50 mph were blasting through Southern California on the morning of Oct. 21, 1996. The humidity was at a 15-year low of 5 percent. A devastating fire was already destroying homes in the Lemon Heights area of Orange County when the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) received a report of a brushfire along Parkway Calabasas near the 101 freeway just after 10:30 A.M. A power line had been felled by the wind and ignited the tinder-dry brush below.

Pushed by the strong winds, the fire quickly grew in size and in minutes over 30 acres had been burned. At the outset, the fire was being blown in a northerly direction toward Las Virgenes Road. But a sudden shift in wind sent flames racing toward the Stokes Canyon area where dozens of homes were located. Strike teams were sent into the narrow canyon to protect homes and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies began evacuating residents well ahead of the fire's arrival.

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Photo by Ken Koller
Smoke billows over Malibu Creek State Park a few hours after the fire started on Oct. 21, 1996.


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Photo by Ken Koller
Strike teams speed down the Pacific Coast Highway near Pepperdine University late in the afternoon of Oct. 21.

In minutes, the firestorm exploded through Stokes Canyon, sending residents who had ignored evacuation orders scrambling to escape. Both sides of the canyon were instantly engulfed in flames, and fire crews did all they could to protect themselves as well as the homes at which they were positioned.

As the fire raced across Mulholland Highway, a call was put out for 30 strike teams, literally hundreds of engines, to be sent to Malibu and take up defensive positions in the projected path of the fire. At this point, it was determined that there was going to be no stopping the fire until it reached the Pacific Ocean and that the main focus of firefighting operations would be protecting homes and structures in the fire's path. Residents of Malibu, who have lived though fires of this magnitude every few years, had already begun packing pets and valuables into their cars, preparing for an evacuation hours before the fire reached the coast. Experience told them that the fire was heading their way and nothing was going to stop it from reaching their homes.

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Photo by William G. Hartenstein
Santa Ana Winds topping 50 mph blasted through Southern California on Oct. 21. The humidity was at a 15-year low of 5 percent.


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Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Los Angeles County camp crew firefighters try to control the fire along 101 Freeway.

As flames were knocking on Malibu's back door, another flank of the fire was burning well to the southeast of the main fire, threatening not only homes in the Monte Nido area but LACoFD Station 67 as well. Residents were quickly evacuating their homes with their horses in tow as fire crews made their way into the heavily wooded area.

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