Thousand Oaks, Calif.—I could smell it upon awakening. It usually began that way—merely an offshore flow that changed the air in my coastal community from moist and marine-scented to dry and flavored with the aromas of the Great Basin. This always excited me because it meant that waves would not be crumpling from onshore winds by midmorning but would retain their shape throughout the day. By afternoon the flow had usually become a wind. Called a Santa Ana by everyone in Southern California since the late 19th century, the wind burst through the passes of the San Gabriel Mountains and swept across the Los Angeles basin and out to sea. It brought temperatures in the 100s, and its offshore direction could turn ordinary waves into surfers’ dreams. It usually arrived in September and would reappear intermittently until the end of November or December. We kids who surfed were stoked.


If the wind blew too hard, though, not only did it undo the good it had done in shaping waves, but it also fanned the smallest fires into holocausts. Raging brush fires are nothing new to California. The Indians had taken advantage of Santa Ana winds to ignite tinder-dry brush during the fall and send panic-stricken animals fleeing down canyons to the sea. Waiting at the mouth of the canyons were Indian hunters who dispatched the fire-driven deer and other game with ease. The Indians seem to have engaged in the practice for centuries before Spanish explorers first reported it during the 18th century. The fires had another benefit for the Indians: hillsides and canyons were cleared of dense undergrowth, nutritious grasses and plants sprang up with the first rains, and deer browsed to their heart’s content, growing sleek and strong.


Although the Indians were simply intent on driving game out of the hills, they were practicing a kind of fire ecology. Repeated burns prevented a buildup of fuel, and the fires were usually not able to burn with the heat and intensity necessary to kill trees. The bark of healthy trees is amazingly resilient and is able to protect the trees from long-term damage. This is especially true of the several varieties of oaks that dot California’s coastal mountains and valleys. The Spanish ranchero continued the practice of burning, although he did it to improve grazing for his longhorn cattle. As long as man-made structures were not consumed, the practice seemed to have nothing but beneficial effects.


It was on a rancho that one of California’s first great rural homes was consumed by a Santa-Ana-driven brush fire. Frederick Rindge was the scion of a wealthy New England family who bought Rancho Topanga, Malibu, Sequit —the area known simply as Malibu today—from the Kellers in 1893. Friction immediately developed between the backcountry homesteaders, living just beyond the ranch’s boundaries, and Rindge. The previous owner, Matthew Keller, an open-handed Irish immigrant who had once studied for the priesthood, had built a road through the property—the basis for Malibu’s portion of the coast highway today—and allowed local homesteaders to use it. Rindge erected locked gates and hired armed patrols to guard access. At the time he lived in a home in Santa Monica and visited the ranch only occasionally. Then, in 1903, he built a grand ranch house near the mouth of Malibu canyon. Before he and his wife, May, could fully settle in, a Santa Ana began to blow, and a fire erupted high in the canyon. It took only hours for the fire to race to the sea and consume everything in its path, including the Rindge ranch house. Arson was suspected, and suspicion rested upon the backcountry homesteaders. Rindge moved back to Santa Monica and died not much more than a year later.


Ever since the loss of Rindge’s house, Malibu has seen, again and again, the destruction of homes in Santa-Ana-driven brush fires. The first great blaze that I remember erupted on a night just after Christmas in December 1956. Starting near Lake Sherwood in Thousand Oaks and driven by Santa Ana winds gusting to 50 MPH, it roared through the Santa Monica Mountains and reached the ocean at Zuma Beach in Malibu. It scorched more than 35,000 acres and razed more than a hundred homes in an area that was then only very thinly populated.


In the path of the fire, in an area known as Malibu Park, lay the little red ranch house of my wife’s grandparents. Next door was the property where my wife’s parents would soon build a house and where my wife and her five brothers and sisters would be reared. Houses were scattered through Malibu Park on large parcels of land that included nearly as many horses as people. Into this bucolic setting came a wall of flame that lit the sky in the middle of the night. Waking up, 4-year-old Gaynor McGregor ran into her parents’ room and exclaimed, “Look Mommy, the sun is shining bright!” Nearby the McGoverns were jolted from slumber when the glass panes in their windows began to explode from the heat. From a house down the road a man bolted naked out the front door and raced just ahead of the flames for the ocean. To his rescue came a neighbor with a blanket and a car. Another Malibu Park resident, driving to his house to retrieve valuables, became disoriented in thick smoke and swerved into a gully. Before he could extricate himself the fire swept down the gully and left him incinerated.


Most people—and horses and dogs—reached the beach safely and watched helplessly as houses, barns, corrals, and sheds went up in flames. Both the McGregors and the McGoverns lost their homes but would be among the first to rebuild. The little red ranch house still stands on two acres of land overlooking Zuma Beach, although owned by a new family and worth a hundred times its value in 1956.


Those who lost their houses got some small comfort when President Eisenhower declared Malibu a federal disaster area, providing tax relief and low-interest loans for the victims of the fire. A disaster area it was. I saw it firsthand. Not only did I live in the adjacent community of Pacific Palisades, but I also delivered the Sunday Los Angeles Times to Malibu and was allowed access to all the burned areas. Actually, since I was just a kid, it was my paper boss, Royal, who was allowed access. I delivered an afternoon newspaper, the Mirror News, Monday through Saturday on my bicycle and then the Times on Sunday with Royal. He would drive while I stood up through the sunroof of his VW bug and hurled the papers. Between 2:00 and 6:00 in the morning we covered most of what is today the city of Malibu. Since the area had only a fraction of the houses that are there today, the fire reduced the number of our customers sharply. From Latigo Canyon westward to the county line, especially in the Malibu Park area, houseless chimneys stood everywhere.


The next great conflagration came in 1961. Early on the morning of Nov. 6, as a Santa Ana wind whipped to 30, then 40, and eventually 50 MPH, a blaze ignited in the brush-covered Santa Monica Mountains near Mulholland Drive just east of the San Diego freeway. Hundreds of homes had been erected in the area, a less expensive and less exclusive portion of Bel Air, during the preceding decade, and now they burned like matchboxes. The fire jumped the freeway to the west and scorched portions of Kenter, Mandeville, and Sullivan canyons. Homes by the dozen fell to the flames. The athletic fields of Paul Revere Junior High School, which I had attended, were crowded with horses, taken there from houses in Mandeville and Sullivan. One of those to rescuehorses was Melany May, an accomplished rider, a good friend, and one of my classmates from the seventh through the 12th grades. Her father was Cliff May, prominent designer and builder of the “California ranch home.” Now, many of those ranch homes were in flames.


Ronald Reagan was living at that time on Alta Mura Drive in the Riviera section of the Palisades. His house was only a stone’s throw from Sullivan Canyon. His 10-year-old daughter, Patti, attended the John Thomas Dye School in Bel Air. The school was evacuated almost as soon as she arrived on the morning of the sixth. Two hours after her departure, it went up in flames. Meanwhile, the Reagans took in the wife and family of a friend from Mandeville, while he remained behind to soak the roof of his house with a garden hose. “Both he and the house survived,” recalls Patti, “but I know from the lowered voices in the living room that no one was sure he would. Our cars were packed in case we had to evacuate; from our Pacific Palisades home, we could look at the hills in back and see an ominous orange glow.”


Later in the day, a second fire erupted in Topanga Canyon, which in those days was home to a small number of well-kept ranches and solidly constructed homes and a large collection of poorly constructed—although some tidy and picturesque—houses clinging to hillsides and creek banks. Few of the latter had been constructed by licensed contractors, and most were erected without thought to building codes. Some were nothing more than shanties, built with old lumber and tarpaper. It’s no wonder that in the ’40s and ’50s some people referred to Topanga Canyon as Appalachia West. With the fire threatening, down from their canyon dwellings came an odd assortment of hillbillies, with dogs, horses, and goats in tow, eccentrics of all types, and struggling musicians and artists, including my sister and her husband, and their year-old son. No sooner had my sister reached our home on the rim of Temescal Canyon in the Palisades than the fire jumped the ridge and began heading our way. It burned the hills above the Palisades but stopped there when the wind died. The two fires scorched some 10,000 acres, destroyed nearly 500 houses, and caused property damage in excess of $25 million: big bucks in those days.


Small fires erupted intermittently in the Santa Monica Mountains through rest of the sixties, but the next big burn occurred late in September 1970 when a powerful Santa Ana drove flames through portions of Malibu to the sea. Burned by this and earlier fires was Ronald Reagan’s ranch in the upper portion of Malibu Canyon. (His Rancho del Cielo, high on a ridgeline above Refugio Canyon near Santa Barbara, would come years later.) Quick work by firemen, including setting a backfire, saved Reagan’s ranch house, although his barn was burned. Local firemen fondly remember Reagan coming to their station on Cornell Road and personally thanking them for saving the house. Then, with a slight smile, he said that he had one minor complaint—they should have let the house burn and instead saved the barn because the latter contained all the things he considered most valuable. That truly was Reagan. In the early 1960s, I often saw him on the ranch, disking a field with a tractor, mending a fence, or chopping wood.


None of these fires slowed growth. Houses continued to be built deeper into the canyons and higher on the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains. As a consequence, each succeeding fire consumed more homes and cost more millions. Although nature conspires to provide the necessary elements for the blazes—thick brush, months without rain, and Santa Ana winds—they are usually started by man, often with arsonist intent. Such was the case with the great Malibu fire of October 1978. With a Santa Ana blowing hard, a firebug torched a brushy hillside in Agoura, which lies on the northern slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. Within hours the fire was roaring and leaping from hillside to hillside and headed for Zuma Beach. Meanwhile, a second fire, arson-sparked at the north end of Mandeville Canyon, began a rapid advance towards the Palisades.


At the time my wife Susan and I were living in the Palisades. Her first thought was of her horse that she kept at her parents’ house, immediately inland from Zuma. Susan raced her VW bug up the highway just in time to see flames cresting the ridgeline on the hills north of her parents’ house. With little time to spare she saddled her horse and worked her way around a burning barn and a flaming hillside to the beach. While firemen sat on their trucks on the coast highway, evidently waiting for orders, she made her way back to her parents’ house. There she found a brother-in-law busy wetting the roof with a hose. She took similar action at a neighbor’s house. Through the smoke, Susan and her brother-in-law could occasionally catch glimpses of one another, from rooftop to rooftop, hose in hand. The next morning both houses were still standing, while others in the area had been reduced to cinders.


In the meantime, the Mandeville fire had reached the Palisades and was roaring down Temescal Canyon. Those houses along the canyon’s rim above Sunset Boulevard were especially vulnerable. One of those houses was the home of “Gramsey” Ford, the grandmother of my childhood buddy Scott McKenzie and the wife of Los Angeles county supervisor and Republican Representative Leland Ford. The house looked like a smaller version of Tara from Gone With the Wind. Inside the two-story structure were memorabilia and papers from the congressman’s days in office. Its backyard dropped off into Temescal Canyon and, over the years, we kids had built several trails from the yard down the steep slope through thick brush and oak trees to the creek bottom below. I knew all too well that there was fuel aplenty to feed the approaching fire and raced to the house. I found Scott’s younger brother, Brett, and together we decided to stay for the duration. With garden hoses in hand we climbed onto the second-story roof and began hosing down the shingles. Most people in the neighborhood had already gathered up their valuables and fled south of Sunset. The boulevard became a kind of battlefront with fire trucks lined up for blocks. Apparently, the fire department had made the decision that hillside homes to the north of Sunset were toast.


In less than a half-hour flames had reached the backyard and were licking at the side of the garage. Just then a motorcycle appeared in the driveway, and an LAPD cop, who looked like a tall version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, yelled to us that there was a mandatory evacuation order in effect. Before we could answer, a gust blew a wall of flame over the house and driveway, and Paul Bunyan kicked his bike into gear and was gone.


When the wind gusted, flames were fanned high into the night sky and well above us on the second story. At those moments all we could do was flatten ourselves on the opposite side of the roof. Between gusts we would swing back into action and soak areas that had caught fire. Across the canyon we watched burning embers land on roofs and, with no one there to hose them down, start fires that grew gradually until the roofs and houses were ablaze. We saved Gramsey’s house that night as well as the house next door. Brett and I smelled like we had been barbequed but were elated with the results of our amateur firefighting.


From Mandeville to Malibu, the fire burned more than 25,000 acres, destroyed some 230 houses and another 250 outbuildings and barns, and killed three people. Property losses exceeded $70 million. Some of the greatest losses occurred, ironically, not in the hills but at the seashore. From Broadbeach, at the west end of Zuma, to Decker Canyon, a few miles up the coast, firebrands were blown from the hills over the coast highway and onto the roofs of beachfront houses, several of them the property of Hollywood celebrities.


As usual, both nature and human beings recovered quickly. Within a few years not only was the brush back, but also nearly every house rebuilt bigger and better than before. Moreover, construction had begun on new houses on the few remaining vacant lots along Broadbeach. Nor did the fire do anything to slow appreciating real-estate values. The last of the Broadbeach lots each sold for more than a million dollars. When the Marblehead Land Company of Malibu first began selling the lots in 1940, they went for $1,200 apiece.


Another fire of epic proportions swept through Malibu late in October 1993. The usual suspects were involved: a powerful Santa Ana wind, tinder-dry brush, and an arsonist. This time the fire started closer to Topanga than Agoura and instead of burning the normal corridors to the beach took a more easterly route and scorched Carbon and Las Flores canyons. Those areas had not had a major burn in more than 20 years and erupted in balls of flame. By the time the firestorm had burnt its way to the sea, 323 houses were destroyed, and three people were killed. Among the newly homeless were Dick Van Dyke, Ali MacGraw, and Sean Penn. Many of the houses in the path of the fire had been built during the 1970s and ’80s. A fire burning those same 18,000 acres in the 1960s would have destroyed only a fraction of the number houses razed in 1993.


Now in 2003, fire has again scorched southern California, burning across some 745,000 acres in eight separate major blazes, and several more minor ones, from the San Diego backcountry in the south to the Sespe Wilderness area of Ventura County in the north. More than 3,300 homes have been reduced to ashes, and 20 people have been killed, although the latter figure may increase as the charred remains of dwellings, vehicles, and wilderness campsites are scrutinized. Three of the fires were set by arsonists, and in four others, now under investigation, arson is suspected. The cost to fight the fires is estimated at more than $40 million. Total property losses are expected to be in the hundreds of millions.


For the foreseeable future wildfires will be part of life in southern California. They will also grow more costly as not only more but also more expensive houses are built in areas that saw only brush burn in the past. The only thing that can stop the blazes is fire. Unless controlled burns regularly check the growth of brush—an approach that is also ecologically sound—infernos will continue to visit southern California. And the brush is the only factor over which we have any control. Demented firebugs are rarely caught and will always be with us. So too will the Santa Ana wind, an awesome force of nature.

“There was a rough, desert wind blowing into Los Angeles that evening. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair, make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” said Philip Marlow, Raymond Chandler’s famous hard-boiled detective. “On nights like that every booze party ends up in a fight—and meek little house wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen on a night when the Santa Ana blows in from the desert.”  
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Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, among other books.