Seaside paradise slips into hellish inferno Malibu, home of stars, battles fires

November 03, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MALIBU, Calif. -- The air off Malibu was thick and nearly unbreathable. Red-hot cinders rained on the roiling waves. The fishing boat Derek Sherman and Mark Stevens had chartered out of Marina del Rey at $250 a hour couldn't get any closer to shore.

They had a decision to make. Should they give up and turn back? Or should they do what they came to do?

And so Mr. Sherman, the graying, 39-year-old owner of a cellular phone company, and Mr. Stevens, a 26-year-old former swimmer for the British Olympic team, donned life jackets and plunged into the dark sea. "We're going to regret it later if we don't," Mr. Sherman said before jumping.

They swam for a tenth of a mile until they reached Mr. Sherman's oceanfront house, below the wall of flames descending on Malibu. As they landed, drenched and elated, they let out a whoop.

This was, after all, Malibu, home to the filthy rich and the just plain wealthy, favored haunt of those who are famous and those who aspire to be. This fabled seaside enclave, its glittery image seared in the collective memory of America thanks to the Beach Boys and Gidget, slipped into a hellish inferno yesterday afternoon.

Yet as flames raged in the hillsides, swallowing up million dollar homes, hopscotching across canyons and clawing at the ocean's door, Malibu remained peculiarly Malibu.

Residents staged a mass exodus, trudging along the coast highway like some sort of grim wartime death march. A surfer in T-shirts and shorts toted his board.

A businessman, meticulously dressed in a suit, bowtie, suspenders and sunglasses, pleaded desperately with authorities to let him past police lines to his house. "Listen to me," he begged. "I've got a deaf wife with a newborn."

But it was too dangerous. He was not allowed to return. He scrambled down an embankment and began walking up the beach in his tassled loafers, disappearing from view as he moved toward the orange black horizon.

From down below, the hillsides were lighted in bursts of red as anguished residents watched their homes ablaze, palm trees silhouetted against the fiery storm. Dense smoke settled over the sea, giving the eerie feel of a June fog bank, only fouler and more menacing. As darkness settled, a smoke column rose several thousand feet in to the air above Pepperdine University, obscuring the stars.

Off the coast, a small armada of pleasure boats bobbed in the wind-roughened bay. Some residents told of neighbors packing up their belongings and children and just heading out to sea. One man rowed alone, fighting nature in his kayak.

Dick Gardner, a 74-year-old retired aerospace engineer, has lived in Malibu for 35 years. Standing on the coast highway, looking up at his house, he could see it had not yet caught fire. He was hopeful that it could be saved. He is used to this, the brutality of nature in Malibu.

"It's burned around us three times," he said. But he loves it nonetheless. "When you look out at the ocean it makes it all worthwhile. Most of the year this is a wonderful place to live."

Inside the famous Malibu Colony, residents yelled for help and hosed down trees as the fire threatened homes of the rich and well-known. But in this area where movie stars are as common as sand crabs, to some it was, astonishingly, a ho-hum scene.

Robert Clay is landlord to the stars, owner of several homes in the Colony. As he stood in the yard of his $10,000 per month rental -- leased at various times by the likes of Diana Ross and Beach Boy Brian Wilson -- he said, "I'm not worried at all."

Writer Richard Christian Matheson, was practicing the drums in his new soundproof room when the carpenter who built the room peeked outside. "It sounds great," he told Mr. Matheson, "but have you looked outside?" Mr. Matheson took a look. "It was just this filament of charcoal coming over the hill."

Within two hours he had evacuated. He carted off all the books he could carry, signed by various authors, plus several black leather jackets and his cat, Miss Kitty. He said he spotted his neighbor, actress Ali McGraw, hiking in toward her house as he was driving out.

"By the time I left," he said, "it was like Apocalypse Now."

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