Santa Anas at night, surfers’ delight. Santa Anas in the morning, homeowners take warning.
Surfers love Santa Ana winds. They roar down Malibu Canyon and give the waves a makeover — from languid, shaggy hippies into movie stars. Holding back the falling curl, offshores blow into the wave faces and lend Malibu some of the qualities it lacks: speed, a little hollowness and no crumbly sections.
Hopes were high for Sunday because a Southern Hemisphere swell that ravaged Cabo a few days earlier was supposed to show up. The first gusts hit around 10:30 Saturday night, rustling the trees and making the ocean shimmer under the moonglow. Very poetic and nice, but the air smelled like smoke, and trucks with flashing lights kept passing by. No sirens, though.
The generators at the Verizon switching building came on around midnight, and we fell asleep to the sound of heavy firefighting equipment zizzing by, either heading for trouble or preparing for it.
Sunday, we awoke to the welcome sounds of the surf booming on the beach across the street. But the power was off, the wind was howling, and there was a lot of smoke in the air. Sirens and helicopters were everywhere. We couldn’t get TV or the Internet, so I went downstairs to my van to listen to KNX 1070. A bad fire had started along Malibu Canyon Road and was threatening Serra Retreat and the middle of Malibu.
I got on my bicycle and headed west on PCH into a chaotic mess of wind, smoke, fire, panic, helicopters, airplanes, media and what appeared to be every piece of firefighting equipment in Southern California. Normally buttoned-up Malibu was now open and exposed. Behind Malibu Colony, an open gate allowed a glimpse into Jerry Perenchio’s private golf course: nine perfectly groomed holes that were probably worth several million dollars each.
As I rode past Surfrider Beach, I saw a really good set pour through, with maybe three surfers out. But I didn’t stop. Smoke was pouring up and over the hill where the corrupt son of the corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea bought the $35 million house. I wondered if karma would burn that home or if the fire gods would go after the house of some innocent who had done nothing to no one. I thought about my friend Janet’s house. After she lost two homes and her Porsche in the 1993 fire, she moved to the middle of Malibu because she thought it was safer. Her house is on Malibu Knolls — turn left at Malibu Presbyterian Church — and has a multimillion-dollar view of Malibu and the Santa Monica Bay. But now that part of Malibu was in flames, and Janet was in Mexico.
There was too much smoke to see much of what was happening, but I clearly saw Lilly Lawrence’s Castle Kashan, first surrounded by flames and then up in flames. It looked like a scene from an Errol Flynn movie, with fire leaping from rows of windows. Seeing the castle on fire almost made me feel guilty — I’d once pitched an animated feature to Warner Bros. called Malizoo in which the animal citizens of a town called Malizoo don’t get along until a ferocious brushfire breaks out and the animals work together to put out the flames. The main illustration for the pitch, inspired by a sighting of two Super Scooper planes at work on a 2005 brushfire, was a squad of water-dropping pelicans over a burning Malibu castle. Now the castle was burning, and there were no water-dropping planes overhead. It was history.
When I got to Cross Creek, the full brunt of those offshore winds blowing down from the hills to the flats made it hard to ride my bike. A woman I see at Malibu Kitchen every day, who is usually very calm and collected, went tearing up the Cross Creek entrance to Serra Retreat with her horse trailer; a lot of other trailers, large and small, were going up with her.
Camera crews were in the area, and a guy with an Entertainment Tonight hat asked if I would talk. My girlfriend worked awhile for E.T., so I knew what kind of soundbites he was looking for. I said, “Malibu has a fire-breathing dragon that lives up in the hills, and you never know when it’s going to come out.” I also said the “Santa Ana winds in the morning” line, and he liked that too.
Of course, he asked if any fricking celebrities were threatened. I said I lived across the street from the Olsen twins and Jennifer Aniston and there might have been an Olsen-twin spotting that morning. He looked off in that direction, but decided to stick around. To throw him a bone, I pointed toward Dick Van Dyke’s Jaguar, and he went scurrying over to shoot it. I felt guilty right after I did it.