Relief efforts ongoing as devastating wildfires have forced some 75,000 evacuations in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
MALIBU, Calif. – As the morning began, the surf beckoned and the skies were a brilliant blue, signaling another idyllic day, but within hours one of California’s most fabled playgrounds Friday would be under threat of a massive wildfire.
Raging wildfires roared Friday across California, killing at least five people and sending 157,000 people from their homes. In tony Malibu, cars snarled Pacific Coast Highway as residents faced a mandatory evacuation order covering the famous beachside enclave. Some lined up five deep at a gas station for a chance to get fuel. All were being directed south toward the safety of Santa Monica as the sky above turned an inky black.
At the Point Dume Village shopping Center north of the famed Malibu pier, business was brisk Friday morning at a coffee bar, the Cafe De La Plage. Customers wore T-shirts, shorts and sandals. Many of them were evacuees, having fled their nearby homes the night before in the belief Malibu would be a safe haven.
“I am just very unhappy,“ said James Collins, 48, from the small community of Cornell. He said he had been evacuated at 4 a.m., but he was taking it in stride, noting the rest of the nation has had its share of natural disasters recently.
“Other people have rain. We have fire,“ said Collins.
Glynn Palmer, 55, and his son Truman, 15, were also trying to make the best of the evacuation. Unable to return to their home in Oak Park, they were plotting on how to make good use of the scuba equipment they had in their car to turn the day into something a little less scary.
A pair of Dutch bicyclists in a trek from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego were trying to stay ahead of the flames. They had gotten on the road before the highway closures and were peddling as smoke billowing in the hills nearby.
“We are not afraid,” said one of them, Twan Goense, 24, of Delft, the Netherlands.
One man was also taking it all in stride. Victor Adams, nursed a drink with his yellow Labrador Dale at his side.
“I just hope for the best,” Adamo said. “I’ve been through it before.”
Elizabeth Anthony said she was glad she evacuated when she did, at 7:20 a.m., from her home on Point Dume in Malibu. She was still driving 2 ½ hours later on Pacific Coast Highway, inching along in gridlock traffic with her two dogs and a car full of keepsakes.
“I feel good that I’m away from this huge plume of smoke,” she said. “It’s scary.”
A few neighbors told her they were staying. She evacuated on her own, with her family out of town.
“When the firefighters say go, I go,” she said.
Her husband, Pete Anthony, said it was hard to be away from home.
“She’s stressed out as hell. But she has the dogs,” Anthony said of his wife, adding that he has fire insurance. “We’re covered.”
The drive from Malibu either north or south meant nearly standstill traffic and some evacuees were caught by surprise as they tried to get gas to leave the area. The power abruptly went out at an Arco gas station near Point Dume where there had been lines of people filling up their tanks. Fearful of running out of gas, they were exchanging information on where they might find the closest open station.
Some gawkers stopped in their luxury cars at closed shopping centers to shoot photos of flames that appeared to be as high as 20 feet as they marched down the hillsides. All the while, winds were gusting up to 50 miles an hour at the top of the hills. Farther north, the sky was black with smoke.
Susan Cain Tellem, who runs American Tortoise Rescue, wrote on her Facebook page: “Time to leave,” with a photo of a plume of smoke looming over Malibu.
Tellem and her husband have rescued or re-homed 4,000 turtles and tortoises since 1990. Many of the animals live on their Malibu property, including goats, chickens, turtles and tortoises.
By phone at Zuma Beach in Malibu, Tellem said she loaded up as many of her animals as she could with her husband Marhsall Thompson, but had to leave several of the larger tortoises behind.
“I don’t know if we are safe or not. Our home is right above where I am standing and it doesn’t look happy,” Tellem said before the cell phone signal dropped.
By 3 p.m., the fire was burning along Pacific Coast Highway, only a 100 yards or so from Malibu’s sprawling surf. At one point south of Encinal Canyon, power poles were burning, threatening to topple and drop their wires across the highway.
The fire was within a quarter-mile of opulent homes on the highway’s inland side and was poised to consume the beachside villas on the other side. The area is home to many celebrities and business tycoons.
Some residents worked with work crews to douse the flames. They wielded fire hoses while wearing fireproof gear and face masks.
One family watched as the flames grew ever closer. Jonathan Frank, wife Gabi, and their children, Angie, 10, and Jonah, 7, vowed to stand by their house.
“I wouldn’t leave,” said Jonathan Frank. Having lived in the house 13 years, he said he has equipped it with a lot of fire safety measures and was sure it would remain standing. There is a sprinkling system inside and helpers were watering down the abundant landscaping. The family also had an escape route to the beach if needed.
Father north at the Malibu Bay Club, a California Highway Patrol officer warned motorists to turn right around and head back to safety in the flatlands of Ventura county. The flames were encroaching on the club and houses across the street, including Ventura County fire station 56. No fire engines were visible to protect to protect the homes or the station, with resources stretched thin.
There, the blaze became so intense that it was becoming the dreaded fire tornado. The flames twisted into columns as it sucked air from all around.
Nearby, as the daytime sky looked dark as night, a couple of surfers were tackling the waves.
Contributing Jessica E. Davis, USA TODAY
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