MALIBU, California—Blackened valleys and cars burnt to a white dust line the sides of the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, where firefighters have been working for days to control the Woolsey Fire that has incinerated more than 90,000 acres of this starry enclave.
At the same time, fires continue to blaze in Northern California in the so-called Camp Fire, which is already one of the most destructive blazes in state history, accounting for 29 of the 31 fatalities statewide.
In Malibu on Monday afternoon, smoke billowed from burned-out hillsides around the fabled highway, and ferocious Santa Ana winds lent an eerie feel to this deserted beach community that looked more like a movie set for an apocalypse film than an elite retreat.
Local resident Soniya Perl waited out a possible return to her home at a Starbucks in nearby Pacific Palisades, which is untouched. For now, she is staying with relatives where the air is better.
“My heart goes out to all of my friends that have lost homes,” she said, showing a before-and-after photograph of a friend’s mansion now burned to the ground. “Many people don’t even know if they still have a home to go back to.”
“There are entire canyons where homes are gone,” she added. “The area around Malibu High School is gone. But Malibu is a powerful community and people will come together to help rebuild.”
Malibu is still under mandatory evacuation, along with Oak Park, Hidden Hills, and Westlake Village. On Monday afternoon, police blocked the entrance to most of the canyons leading toward the white sands. Many contain devastated homes residents have yet to revisit. The PCH remained closed to everyone except media and emergency services.
A public information officer at the Malibu Fire Station, Kailie Leggett, told The Daily Beast that 20 percent of the fire was contained as more than 3,000 firefighters battle the Woolsey and . “We have 3,227 firefighters out today. There’s a fire two mountains behind Topanga Canyon which is now one of the focuses. There is a lot of devastation right here but things are getting under control,” she said.
Stacks of boxed lunches and water stood in a pile outside the fire station. Police and firefighters, some with blackened faces, came and went.
Kanan Dume, one of the main corridors affected by the fires, was closed to anyone other than emergency workers.
A drive through the ash blowing into a gated community next to Kanan Dume, where some of the worst destruction could be seen, showed how randomly fire hits. An advertisement for a luxury home for sale stood in front of what was now charred land. Million-dollar homes on winding streets with mountain views were intact, while neighboring homes were burned to a cinder.
Two cars stood side by side: one gutted, one untouched. The odd fire engine or police car drove up the back canyons, inspecting some of the damage, as smoke rose from the ground in this fuming landscape. The mountains were burnt as far as the eye could see.
“You always want to do better,” firefighter Robert Sales told The Daily Beast at Malibu Fire Station. “We still lack resources, but the response has been organized and well executed. Here in Malibu now, it’s watching out for restarts and keeping things under control. A lot has been lost but in the past the fires have reached the homes on the beach which hasn’t happened this time. We haven’t lost any firefighters, but two people died in Decker Canyon. We warn people but they stayed with their homes.”
While Sales said fires that some had feared would reach the town center through Malibu Creek were now under control, Malibu remains a ghost town. Abandoned cars stand parked by burnt letter boxes on some of the side canyons. Front gardens were blackened in front of homes that stood intact. Occasional puffs of smoke rose, as far as the eye could see.
A popular PCH seafood restaurant stood bashed by flames, and framed by dangling wires and darkened earth.
Perl was getting updates on her phone: a town hall meeting on Tuesday night, a message from a former Malibu mayor about fire trucks and law enforcement monitoring Point Dume, a key site.
“The city is working on getting people back home and all the associated help they will need,” the message read. “We are coordinating with the County, State and agencies to get people the help they need with housing, insurance etc. We have 20,000 face masks and will distribute once the authorities ok people getting in. It will be up to law enforcement. Patience is hard but please try.”
According to Leggett, the mandatory evacuation order remains in place, and the only way into Malibu is to walk or bicycle.
More than 370 structures are confirmed destroyed but only 15 percent of the area has been surveyed. Another 57,000 structures are in jeopardy until the fire is contained, which is not expected until Nov. 15.
“We just hope we can go home soon,” Perl said. “My heart bleeds.”