Weather, Planning Helped at Malibu Fire

(AP) When the first flames appeared in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu over Thanksgiving weekend, officials were waiting.

A crew was on the scene within three minutes of the fire's start, and within 15 minutes, six helicopters were up, said Fire Inspector Sam Padilla.

The blaze, which was 97 percent contained Monday, would destroy 53 homes and damage more than 30 others. But officials said the damage could have been worse had it not been for their preparations and a break in the weather.

"All the elements were there for something really bad and catastrophic to happen. We wanted to be better safe than sorry," said Michael Richwine, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The planning for the Thanksgiving winds began more than a week ahead of time, with state, local and federal fire officials meeting to review maps of the projected winds and the moisture levels of vegetation.

Water content in shrubs and trees was below 40 percent _ a critical level _ and strong winds were forecast to last several days.

Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to locations across Southern California, with big concentrations in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

By Thanksgiving Day, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had more than 3,000 additional firefighters in place on 400 engines, 89 firefighting crews and 28 bulldozer crews, Richwine said.

"We do this quite frequently, but this one was just a little bigger than what we've done in the past because of the fuels and the winds," he said.

More than 100 aircraft were also waiting around the region, and more than 350 inmates were deployed to help clear fire lines. The Los Angeles County Fire Department, which took the lead in Malibu, had 100 extra personnel on hand and eight aircraft _ two 1,200-gallon SuperScoopers and six helicopters _ at the ready, said Padilla.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but authorities have said it was either accidentally or intentionally started by someone.

Fire officials said they wanted to deploy more resources before any potential blazes after last month's firestorm in Southern California that destroyed 2,196 homes and burned 800 square miles.

"The event in late October, we pre-positioned whatever we had and we moved it to Southern California," said Mike Jarvis, a spokesman for the state forestry department. "But if you've got wind of the extreme nature that it was last month, that really restricts what you can do."

The winds in those fires whipped at up to 100 mph _ twice as fast as top speeds over Thanksgiving _ and lasted days instead of hours.

Because of the lighter winds this time, pilots were able to get up and stomp the flames down early, authorities said.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was expected to hold a hearing that will focus on whether more preparations are needed for wildfires.

"We're trying to get a sense of what needs to be done to prepare Southern California for what are going to be increasingly virulent fires," Feinstein said.


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