Malibu Brush Fires Spur New Focus on Prevention

Building regulations and brush-clearance policies may be reviewed

THE spectacle of multimillion-dollar homes in Malibu going up in smoke this week only puts a sociological exclamation point on what has now become one of the worst fire seasons in southern California history.

Fire has never been a respecter of class, and the latest conflagrations were no exception as several hundred more dwellings - some posh, some poor - were consumed by flames that ran gazelle-quick up and down steep canyons, over mountains, and down to the water's edge in the celebrity-studded enclave.

Coming in the wake of more than 730 structures destroyed in blazes last week, the latest destruction is spurring another round of soul-searching:

Should California do more to control over-building in rugged areas? Are new codes needed to prohibit use of flammable exterior building materials? Do brush-clearance policies need reexamining?

Sober reflection on many of these questions will have to wait until the end of this year's fire season. It could be another couple weeks before the winter rains start, and each time the Santa Anas - the dragon's breath-hot winds that blow in off the desert - kick up, they pose a new danger.

Already, though, the fires may have had at least some political impact: California voters Tuesday bucked the state's traditional antipathy toward taxes and approved a half-cent extension in the state sales tax - some revenues from which will be used to pay for local services, such as firefighting.

Fire crews this week could take some solace in the fact that they were battling fewer blazes than last week. But some of the fires were more intense. One, the Repplier fire near Riverside, east of here, was believed to be started by a downed power line. Another in Ventura County was probably caused by an arsonist. Arson was also suspected in the Malibu fire.

That blaze began Tuesday near Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, but quickly traversed the Santa Monica mountains, darted through wooded canyons, and ended up at the sea. Multimillion-dollar homes burned like briquettes. Palm trees became swizzle sticks of sparks. Several thousand people were evacuated.

Only the heroic efforts of firefighters - more than a dozen of whom were injured - prevented more homes from going up. Crews were able to halt flames only a few yards from Pepperdine University. The fabled Malibu Colony, where many celebrities live, was also spared.

MALIBU has always been vulnerable to natural disasters. It isn't a city as much as a shoestring: a 27-mile sliver of coastline hemmed in by mountains. Usually it beams its problems to the rest of the nation during the wet season, with rock slides, mud slides, and, when the Pacific is particularly wild, with homes on Pelican-leg stilts toppling into the sea.

Fire, though, is always a danger. Homes dot the steep hillsides amid the flammable eucalyptus and chaparral. There are few roads in and out of the area. Access to water is a problem.

To combat fires in such areas, crews have to combine urban and rural fire-fighting techniques. They have to corral fast-moving brush fires while setting up fire lines to save homes. This is what experts call the ``fire of the future.''

The latest blazes underscore that southern California often faces severe fire risks. Its enviable climate is largely to blame: Unlike most regions, it is wet and dry - a long rainy season followed by a prolonged summer dry period.

The weather patterns have produced vegetation over the eons that can be highly combustible, such as manzanita, which survives dry seasons by producing its own oil. The fire threat is the greatest after particularly wet winters, like last year, when the underbrush grows thicker. When the Santa Anas, usually at their worst in October, are added, the result can be disastrous.

Man, of course, bears some blame in all of this. The sheer number of people shoehorning themselves into southern California, and the types of homes they inhabit, bring their own risks. Changing the way communities are laid out or homes are constructed, though, collides with the laissez faire, lifestyle-oriented culture that defines California.

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