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.
Someone said cars were burning at Ralphs, so I pedaled over there, getting blown around by huge gusts of wind and watching out for an unending armada of firefighting vehicles small, large and enormous. There was a surprising amount of damage to Malibu Colony Plaza. Ralphs was okay, but one of the faux towers over the bank had apparently caught fire and collapsed, and the construction trailer that had been taking up parking spaces for so long was blackened to a crisp and still burning. Behind the shopping center, on Malibu Road, a Mercedes station wagon was fully engulfed in flames. It was like a scene out of Baghdad.
I rode back home, puzzled by the wind that was blowing straight out to sea, while the fire moved upwind and to the east, toward my apartment, which is up against the mansioned cliffs on the other side of Carbon Beach. Someone was pouring foam over a house along PCH. I’d always wondered who lived in that huge house, and it turned out to be Jeffrey Katzenberg, the K in DreamWorks SKG.
I got back to the apartment and saw Joe from downstairs hosing the huge stand of bougainvillea that goes up the side of the hill behind our building. Our neighbor Chris was on his roof with a serious hose, wetting down his roof and some of ours. He yelled over, “Surf is cranking!!!!” and he grinned, because he knew he and I weren’t going anywhere.
My wife, Anna, and our roommate, Mara, were a little jumpy, so I told them there probably wasn’t anything to worry about. But I had seen these fires and winds before, and I knew things could change very quickly; it was impossible to know what was going to happen. Anna is from Moscow and has been in California only since June. Being Russian, she has weathered severe social, political and economic upheavals, but natural disasters were something new. I got her to ride with me on one of the new cruiser bikes we’d bought on Thursday so she could witness what was happening, but she didn’t like all the cops and smoke and wanted to go back. I told her I’d follow her back after checking out the CVS store.
But when I got back to the house, I found a very emotional wife. While I was gone, she’d started packing the van with all our stuff. We live up a flight of 50 stairs that are a pain to move up and down, and she had moved a lot, including our mattress. All of our clothes, and just about everything but the TV set, were somehow in the van, and she was screaming and crying and semihysterical.
Guilt got me motivated, and I began moving stuff — on the one hand, worried that the fire was going to wreck our apartment, but on the other hand, grumpy, thinking that it was all a false alarm and I’d have to move all that stuff back up the stairs and reconnect the TV and everything else.
Anna wanted to leave, but I knew that if we headed out, we wouldn’t be able to get back in. I started cleaning the house and, when the power returned, even vacuumed. Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. I vacuumed. I figured I could at least give the house a cleaning enema before I brought everything back in.
Anna wasn’t speaking to me, and eventually I gave up trying to calm her down. Then she disappeared, and my roommate said she’d caught a ride into Santa Monica. That was sketchy, but maybe it was better not to have her around right now.
In the afternoon, I rode my bike back to Cross Creek with a Hawaiian guy named Darren Hao. We stopped at Colony House Liquor, which was open and serving a lot of very thirsty and hot firefighters. They were giving free ice creams and water to the firefighters, who were from Brea and Huntington and Newport and as far away as Arizona and Fresno. At Cross Creek, the smoke had cleared enough for us to see that the Castle was gone. The right turret was no longer there and all that was standing was a chimney.
On the way back, we saw that fire equipment had been moved onto the road about a half mile from my apartment. There was a lot of media and cops and firefighters. The fire was just up the street from my home. But within an hour, it was all over — the firefighters put out the flames that had been licking the ridges behind our apartment. Soon everything was back to almost normal.
As the sun was setting, the offshores were still blowing, and I drove down the street to see if I could get through. No one stopped me, so I parked along PCH and saw that Malibu was firing, so to speak: The surf was well overhead, and the wind had groomed it to magazinelike perfection.
There were three guys in the water, and the one getting out was Andy Lyon, a member of Malibu’s surf/realtor mafia and one of First Point’s best surfers. “The wind is wrong,” Andy said. “And my girlfriend is freaking out, so I’d better get home. Go get some.”
It was weird to see surf that good without the usual pack of 50 people all bashing into each other. I put on trunks and a rash guard and walked down a lonely beach. I hit the water at the top, and it was cold with the wind. I made it to the lineup, where just three guys huddled against the wind, which was now blowing from the northeast: good for homeowners and firefighters, bad for surfers.
All was calm on the southern front. Helicopters flew around the peaks and dipped into valleys like the hunter/killer robots from Terminator. There was smoke high in the mountains.
I needed a wave just to wash the day away. I caught a smaller one, got to my knees, and fought and chattered across a windy 3-footer, all the way to the beach.
Back home, I lugged the big-screen TV up those damned stairs, found the DirecTV box and the remotes, then watched the news until Dexter came on and thought about the final line from Gone With the Wind as Scarlett O’Hara stands in the smoke and flames of her ruined estate: “Tomorrow is another day.”
It’s 10:28 a.m. on Monday. Governor Schwarzenegger just made a speech from Malibu. The air is smoky again and there are sirens going by and helicopters are shaking the house. This morning, I made my way to Janet’s house. Malibu Canyon Road was closed, so I parked below and walked up the ashy cliffs. The guesthouse was gone, and the house was worse than it appeared. Her bedroom and bathroom were torched, but most of her art and artifacts were intact. The house will probably have to be rebuilt. Ralphs is open again. There’s no wind and the streets are like 28 Days Later. I just saw four guys surfing. I might go now. Anna is in Marina del Rey at a friend’s house. She just text messaged me to see if everything is okay.