LETTER: A History of Malibu Fires

A list of Malibu wildfires through the years from 1929 through 2007.

As a resident of Malibu since 1969, I have been a witness to many of the events listed below. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy have any boots on the ground experience in confronting a raging Malibu wildfire. 

Perhaps someone has posted this data before. Regardless, these facts cannot be underscored enough. In building a case against overnight camping in Corral Canyon, the history of devastating wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains speaks louder than any online petition.

Malibu wildfires through the years:

  • October 26, 1929 – Malibu Colony, 13 destroyed.
  • 1930 – "Potrero," Decker Canyon Road Corridor, 15,000 acres, accidental blaze caused by walnut pickers in Thousand Oaks area.
  • October 23, 1935 – "Malibu" or "Latigo/Sherwood," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 30,000 acres 
  • November 23, 1938 – "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 14,500 acres 
  • October 20, 1943 – "Las Flores," Malibu Canyon, 5,800 acres
  • November 6, 1943 – "Woodland Hills (Las Virgenes)," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 15,000 acres
  • December 26, 1956 – "Newton," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 26,000 acres, 100 homes, one death, Frank Dickover.
  • December 2, 1958 – "Liberty," Malibu Canyon, 18,000 acres, eight firefighters injured, 74 homes destroyed (17 in Corral Canyon).
  • November 6, 1961 – "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 8,000 acres
  • September 25, 1970 – "Wright," Malibu Canyon, 28,000 acres, 10 deaths, 403 homes destroyed.
  • October 30, 1973 – "Topanga," Topanga Canyon, 2,800 acres.
  • October 23, 1978 – "Kanan," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 25,000 acres, 2 deaths, 230 homes
  • October 9, 1982 – "Dayton," Malibu Canyon Corridor, 44,000 acres, 15 homes in Paradise Cove destroyed.
  • October 14, 1985 – "Piuma," Las Flores area, Topanga Canyon, 4,700 acres).
  • October 14, 1985 – "Decker," Kanan/Decker Corridor, 6,600 acres. Both arson-caused; six homes destroyed; $1 million damage. 
  • November 2, 1993 – "Old Topanga / North Malibu." In 1993, from November 2 to 11, Malibu experienced one of the largest fires in its history, which burned more than 16,516 acres. Three lives were lost and 739 homes destroyed in the central Malibu/Old Topanga blaze. 
  • October 28, 1996 – "Calabasas," Malibu Canyon Corridor, Brush fire ignited by arcing power line, 13,000 acres; 10 houses destroyed.
  • January 6, 2003 – "Trancas", Trancas Canyon, 759 acres.
  • January 8, 2007 – Bluffs Park in Malibu. The fire hit near the Colony area, burning down four houses on Malibu Road. Officials announced that a discarded cigarette stub started the blaze.
  • October 21, 2007 –  Five homes destroyed, nine others damaged. Two commercial structures completely destroyed. Castle Kashan and the Malibu Presbyterian Church - both destroyed.
  • November 24, 2007 – "Corral." On November 24, 2007, the Corral Fire destroyed 53 homes, damaged 35, and burned over 4,720 acres (19.1 km2), forcing as many as 14,000 people to evacuate. Damages from the fire were expected to reach more than $100 million. The blaze originated at the top of Corral Canyon, where a group of young people who were in closed parkland after dusk had started a bonfire despite the presence of high Santa Ana winds.

Emilio Estevez, Malibu

Patch accepts and publishes letters to the editor and commentary regarding any relevant local issue. The views expressed in the above commentary do not reflect the opinion of the publication, its editor and/or its writers. Emails may be edited for length and clarity. Have an opinion? Write to the editor of your Patch site at malibu@patch.com.

Cece Stein January 19, 2013 at 03:52 AM
Just to stipulate : The 2007 Corral fire started from an illegal campfire in an area that was not designed to have fire clearance regulations. The irresponsible visitors ( both drunk and stoned ) kicked burning logs purchased from Ralphs into dry Chapperal on a red flag night with 60 plus MPH Santa Ana winds. A simple cigarette disposed of in an irresponsible manner could have had the same effect. To Hans credit, legal campgrounds in Malibu do not have a history of creating wildfires. Most fires are attributed others sources, however we are adamant about not having campers in Corral Canyon along with those who flick cigarettes into the vegetation along the proposed trails and day use areas. Let the deers, coyotes and raccoons who do not smoke or need fires have a little space without human intrusion. Leave Corral Canyon pristine, leave it as is.
Linda Rivera January 19, 2013 at 05:08 AM
I frequently find cigarettes that have obviously been thrown out while lit, on morning walks up Sweetwater Mesa. The more construction, the more cigarettes.
John Z. Shafai January 19, 2013 at 04:37 PM
On the subject of cigarettes, about 10 years ago I was driving northbound on PCH. Just past Trancas, I saw someone toss a cigarette out the window. I watched the cigarette bounce in the wind across the highway and ignite the field of weeds and brush on the landside of PCH. The fire quickly spread. I got out of my car and took off my shirt to try to beat out the flames (ever since, I carry two extinguishers in my car). Other people pulled over to help out. Only because a truck of day laborers pulled over were we able to contain the fire using shovels. By the time the fire department showed up, about 15 of us had the fire contained. Only the quick action of bystanders prevented this from escalating into a major incident for west Malibu. A hike-in-only campsite deep in Corral Canyon beyond the city limits will not be accessible to bystanders, arson watch, or fire engines.
Ellen Francisco January 19, 2013 at 05:13 PM
As a 43 year resident of Malibu and having lost a house during a raging wildfire in 1978, I feel it is the City of Malibu's responsibility to at least try to help keep residents and visitors and service providers safe. Wasn't it in a Corral Canyon fire that a fireman lost his life? What is everyone thinking? There are already overnight camping locations along the coast, why increase the risk of danger. People can be irresponsible and careless and others shouldn't have to suffer as a result of their actions and lack of concern Please help keep Malibu Safe. Emilio, thank you for your efforts in pointing out the history of fires in Malibu. Ellen Francisco
William Brown January 19, 2013 at 06:22 PM
Thanks Emilio. Very interesting data here. Look at the fire history historically. It really shows what any long term resident of Malibu can tell you - that firestorms in Malibu are wind driven events. October is by far the most dangerous month. And historically ALL big firestorms in Malibu fall between late September and mid January which corresponds directly to our Santa Ana wind season. I've lived in Malibu for 25 years and was at the frontline of the 2007 fire in Corral Canyon. It's crazy to build these camp sights in Malibu, but at the VERY LEAST they should absolutely be closed after Labor Day and remain closed until Feburary. Peroid. Bill Brown
M Stanley January 19, 2013 at 06:49 PM
William Brown raises the issue of how any proposed campsites would be closed due to high fire danger in recognized seasonality situations. We shouldn't forget that the component to this is a requirement to fully analyze and justify the expenses of providing a camp spot to the public that will not be fully utilized raising the price of such a campsite to exorbitant levels that would be intolerable to the taxpayers of the state. Just as it is "folly" to demand that the state pay for upgrades or amenities that serve a minority base or special interests, it is outrageous to expect that the state would consume huge sums in order to provide a few camping spots that are only legally usable for a very short number of days in the year. It's incredibly stupid of Edmiston to go this route, could very well be his undoing as it would be easy to mount a PR campaign that presents him as serving his own personal agenda above that of the people of the State of California as his job requires that he places as his top priority. These camping spots are the local equivalent of NASA being charged upwards of thousands of dollars for a single hand tool. I also raise the issue of the current, fiscally responsible educational programs that are being run by the wonderful docents of Charmlee as a major point. Doubt that the State could do the same effort for even double the budget that they have!! Kudos to the docents at Charmlee!
J. Flo January 19, 2013 at 07:31 PM
Two of our City Council stated that THEY approached SMMC with this deal. After hearing hours of a filled City Hall, insistent with residents stating "no" one-after-the-other to not allow this deal, not allow overnight camping OR this land swap, our council voted unanimously to move forward fully acknowledging that camping is a pivotal part of this deal and will happen. Left a speechless room of shell-shocked residents. I'd sincerely hoped that our council would've ended their self-appointed deal, that we could've applauded and got behind them rest assured that our community was strongly represented. It did not happen, they've now set this frightening land deal into full negotiations. The Malibu community is being shut out and ignored. This cannot happen. Leaves a very heavy heart. Malibu is rated by the state on the level of the highest, extreme fire hazard area. Why is this being ignored? It is my opinion that our elected city council must change course and change it quickly. It's so crucial at this juncture in time, to come together to create positive, protective, and visionary decisions to lead this city into the future. Citizens must now band together to stop them from their actions. It's such an unfortunate occurrence.
Susan Tellem January 19, 2013 at 07:36 PM
These campsites you refer to are not deep in the canyons, Hans, and you know it. It is irrelevant to look at the past fires and who started them because the fire danger is now year round, the number of people coming to Malibu as visitors has grown tremendously as LA's population has exploded, and the fire department has gone on record saying this is a very, very bad idea. Your argument is moot.
Susan Tellem January 19, 2013 at 07:51 PM
Please! If you see someone toss a cigarette, get the license plate and go online at www.sttop.net. Click on "report a driver." You can put the day, time, make of car, license and the sheriff will send out a letter that this person was spotted tossing out a cigarette. If it happens more than once, they send out a sheriff in person. When we see construction crew members smoking, we call the company - usually there is a truck with a name on it present - and tell the head guy his crew is smoking in a nonsmoking area and make them stop. That includes Verizon, Edison, LA Count workers and construction workers. We must be aggressive in the area of smoking.
Hans Laetz January 19, 2013 at 08:23 PM
I am refer to campgrounds with fire rings or barbeque places up in the canyons: Leo Carrillo Beach, up the Arroyo Sequit. Little and Big Sycamore canyons, landside from PCH. Circle X Ranch, near Boney Mountain. La Jolla Canyon. Accommodates up to 70 people up the canyon. Malibu Canyon State Park, 62 campsites all with fire rings and barbeques. Plus a group site with fire rings for up to 60 people. Decker Canyon Group Campsite: accommodates 150 people, fire rings. We also, within city limits, have a privately owned campground on a hillside with fire rings and barbeques. I am NOT repeat N-O-T repeat I AM NOT arguing for camping, and you apparently cannot understand that. What I am saying is that Joe Edmiston is playing us for chumps. He's going to make "reasonable" compromises, and you and the other shrill voices will scream bloody murder. Then he is going to go back to the Coastal Commission (or to the state legislature) to argue, "we tried to deal with Malibu and look what happened. there's never been a campground fire and these people are just trying to keep Joe Lunchbox out of 'their' Malibu'. " He's pulled that card before. It is better, far better, to try to avoid all this. Propose a deal that gets Joe out of Malibu, and terminates any camping plans within the city. And get the best we can on camping sites outside the city.
Hans Laetz January 19, 2013 at 08:26 PM
... and if Joe does not agree to a plan to ban camping in all fire danger areas outside the city limit ... walk away. All I am saying is we cannot rely on the outsiders who will make the decision on camping to see it our way.
Hans Laetz January 19, 2013 at 08:33 PM
J, perhaps you are not aware that there are dozens and dozens of fire pits up in the hills. Of course, no one you have talked to supports "this." There is no "this" yet.
J. Flo January 19, 2013 at 08:50 PM
There is enough of "this" known. Clearly stated by the City.
Hans Laetz January 19, 2013 at 09:12 PM
Yes. It was clearly stated by the city that they would ENTER NEGOTIATIONS. No more! Joe has tipped his hand, and the city has clearly an open agenda. They are far apart. I think it is extremely unfortunate that the Malibu Township Council, Preserve Malibu and other smart people are slamming this shut before we hear what the deal will be. We have a way to make a deal with the devil. If his terms are hellish, we say no way, and will be no worse off than we are now. Malibu has many, many interests. There can be a way that mature leadership, listening to all voices, can come up with a good plan. The status quo -- with Joe Edmiston in charge of 95 acres in the heart of the city, where two fires have started in 8 years with 6 houses lost? Is that acceptable to anyone?
J. Flo January 19, 2013 at 09:51 PM
Hans and the rest of us were obviously experiencing radically different universes at the City Hall mtg. Malibu residents I urge you to come to your own conclusions, as it should always be. Sit down and watch the online video of this meeting at the Malibu City website. It's all there.
John Mazza January 19, 2013 at 09:51 PM
Hans --- You were at the meeting . I do not see how you can say " It was clearly stated by the city that they would ENTER NEGOTIATIONS. No more!" That is simply not true, when the council started adding items like no camping to their negotiation wish list Christi Hogan clearly told the council that they had to stop changing the deal. She said that Joe wanted camping and it was a non-starter to try to negotiate that away. She was very clear that there was a deal and that if they wanted to add "too much" it was not worth her time to bother to negotiate and that camping was too much.. I am not making this up. That is what is so disturbing about this process, It appears to be a done deal (as in backroom deal) and the only real direction the council gave was for Christi to tell Joe we needed more than the end of the month to check out the grading and geology (can't be done properly in that time) and instructing thorson to check it out in the next thirty days. It is all there on tape in case you missed it.
Hans Laetz January 19, 2013 at 10:03 PM
John, the city council is ENTERING NEGOTIATIONS without obligation, and they told their attorney what their bottom line is: NO CAMPING. Hogin said that a no camping stand will make Edmiston balk. If so, LET HIM WALK AWAY from our reasonable stand. Of course, that will leave us powerless to prevent camping NEXT to Charmlee, outside the city. And it also will leave is vulnerable as Joe tries to find a legal avenue (or state legisaltive assisatnce) to cram camping in to Ramirez Canyon, Winding Way and Bluffs Park, while retaining control over the proven fire trap at Bluffs. OR -- maybe Joe gets smoked out (no pun intended). Maybe his board is as worried about fire was we are (they seem to be). Either way, Malibu gets to approve or veto any potential deal. I'm astounded that these preliminary explorartions are viewed as a done deal. They're not even started. .
Marshall Thompson January 20, 2013 at 12:13 AM
I hope Emilio Estevez understands that his thoughtful and fact-filled letter needs to be followed up by action in the example of his father in his long civil rights career. Mr. Estevez' letter is a fine start to leadership in a campaign that I suggest will be expensive, lengthy and nasty. Especially when you consider the entire elected Malibu City Council sides with the ruthless usurper himself, Joe Edmiston. We are starting at a deficit. The cowardly, back-stabbing city council should be thrown out to a man and woman. I am actually shocked at this turn of events but am somewhat relieved that I have never voted for a single one of these wretched city council members. Emilio, please meet with your neighbors and use your positive reputation and celebrity to help avoid wildfires and save Malibu's fragile Charmlee Park.
Terry January 20, 2013 at 01:02 AM
all u have to do is be the only one at your property with a fire raging over the hill at u to know that all hell is coming down. the intensity of the heat, the smoke with a wet towel around your face and every thing you worked for in your whole life on the line. HAVE U EVER BEEN EXPIERIENCED. WELL I HAVE. i think any consideration of camping in the canyons can only be the deliberation of an idiot mr laetz
Cece Stein January 20, 2013 at 01:59 AM
Are we missing something on Emilio's list? Can anyone list all the fires in his list that were started as a result of wildfires fires started from legal campsites? Once we have a credible lengthy list of truths about campsites then we can state our case to justify the facts for our protest. Hard facts are important here. As much as we do not want the stress of more possible ignition points in our back yards we need to be reasonable and eloquent when presenting our case.
John Mazza January 20, 2013 at 02:08 AM
Hans--Christi specifically asked the council to commit to going along with a deal she was to negotiate with camping in it. She said the deal is dead without it. It was very specifically said that the council would "consider" a deal that involved camping on Charmlee. Please watch the tape and maybe you will see what they are going to do if not persuaded to change their minds.
Susan Tellem January 20, 2013 at 02:09 AM
Cece - stick a sock in it. Love, Susan
Cece Stein January 20, 2013 at 05:19 PM
Oh Susan, I'm so disappointed. Is that all you got? Here's some facts: There will be outsiders who support campgrounds in Malibu and there will be Malibu residents who do no want campers in our dry coastal canyons and for good reason. So both sides need to put their cards on the table. Simply not wanting campers in our canyons is sort of a weak hand. Joe has a few aces and one of those aces is the fact that looming just over the Back Bone Trail is the largest campground in the Santa Monica Mountains that has 63 year around camping sites with no history of being an ignition point for a wildfire. His other ace is the fact that other campgrounds in Malibu have not been ignition points. As Corral residents, Steve Woods of which had to rebuild his home after the 2007 fire, we are more afraid of irresponsible cigarette smokers flicking there butts out the window. John Shafai is right that having a hike-in camping site up Corral Canyon is a really bad idea because the inability to get fire fighting vehicles to the site. As much as it understandable to be nervous about more camp sites in our canyons, the facts don't help our case. Hans is making the same point, how come you didn't tell him to "stick a sock in it"?
Hans Laetz January 20, 2013 at 05:55 PM
She has, regularly. That's OK.
Hans Laetz January 20, 2013 at 05:56 PM
Is there legal camping in Griffith Park? Is there legal camping in Sepulveda Basin? Baldwin Hills State Park? Great Park in Irvine? Balboa Park? Golden Gate Park? No, no, no, no, no. Camping in those parks is not reasonable, for law enforcement and other reasons. That's the argument we can win with. Arguing that "there should be no camping OF ANY SORT inside Malibu because of the fire danger" will not work -- because (A) Joe has proposed campgrounds with zero open flame and (B) legal camping WITH LEGAL FIRES surrounds Malibu, and is inside Malibu, with no wild fires. Like it or not, Malibu sits surrounded by some very expensive federal, state and county parkland that is part of a National Park Service unit. Claiming that Malibu has veto rights on camping outside city limits is just not going to fly. Claiming that Malibu has a right to demand extreme fire protections -- no flames, campground hosts, closure during any wind events at any time of the year, fire hoses with adequate water -- is our only hope. And that has nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to do with the merits of the Charmlee-Bluffs swap itself. Joe will get camping outside Malibu either way. The question is, can we get Joe's camping entirely out the city.
William Brown January 20, 2013 at 07:33 PM
Actually, there is one fire event that I know of that is missing from Emilio's list. And it speaks volumes about the idea of building camp sites in Corral Canyon. Unfortunately I can not recall the date, but there was a large secret pot farm operating above the Malibu Bowl section of Corral Canyon and the people tending the farm started a fire when they fell asleep and left a propane stove unattended. It took fire crews hours to cut a road down to the area to gain access and the fire was quite large by the time they contained it. Luckily, there was not a breath of wind blowing that night so the fire was extinguished fairly quickly. IF there were Santa Ana winds blowing that night (the fire broke out at approximately 3am) I believe the fire would have rivaled the firestorm in 2007 when we lost 53 homes. Can anyone put an exact date on this event??? William Brown
Susan Tellem January 20, 2013 at 11:50 PM
@William Brown - I remember that fire as well, part of Joe's lack of maintenance allowing illegal pot farms to grow in the land he owns because he does not have enough staff to supervise. Perhaps the fire department can give you a date on that.
M Stanley January 20, 2013 at 11:59 PM
Great point to bring up the lack of supervision and enforcement re illegal MJ grows in Edmiston's lands! When Joe doesn't do the required fire protection work to protect the public lands and a fire does start, then Joe benefits from more public funds sent out to protect those very lands he deems not worthy of his own fire protection measures. The same can be said for the multitude of illegal MJ grows as he employs armed ranger patrols that never seem to find these things although reports put the farms in the same regions as previous "farms" that were earlier busted. They know the areas that these criminals use yet they once again turn to outside law enforcement to do a more costly and people consuming work effort rather than rangers finding these farms on routine patrols - to KNOWN AREAS OF CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES. Those farms wreck serious environmental damages that is also not held against the SMMC although they really should get the bills for all the labor and cleanup costs. Blue water streams often diverted and toxic chemicals dumped right into the waterways that then end up at the ocean's shore and giving bad water quality testing measurements. Joe's got to be held to the fire rather than allowed to make fires. Why give him anything when he clearly cannot manage, maintain or support the lands he already holds title to!!!
Cece Stein January 21, 2013 at 12:30 AM
Yes William, it was a still warm night in October 2001 not long after the terrorist attacks of 911. Everybody had there windows open and at about 2 am many smelled smoke so they called 911. The fire fighting units showed up but no one knew where the fire was for about 20 minutes even though a thick layer of smoke was visible by moonlight. Steve Woods and retired fire Capt. Neil Petzing drove all around searching for the source. Steve drove up past the residential houses and spotted a fire deep down in the canyon and reported the location to the fireman who were searching the winding little residential streets below. You are right, had there been the typical Santa Ana Winds that night it would have been a disaster. The Green Harvest helicopters did extensive aerial surveillance for growers every year but failed to see the pot farm deep in the 35 year old scrub. There was also another fire at the top of our canyon a few years later when a stolen vehicle was abandoned and torched causing about 12 acres to burn. There was a mild off shore wind that night but the hand crews got a line around it really fast. Shew ! John Shafai who has commented on Patch is a fairly new resident here and we are lucky to have him as part of the LA County recognized fireman. To have to earn a living and go through the extensive training programs is no easy feat. We can sleep better at night because of our volunteer firemen. Steve also has keys to work the foam pumping truck parked up here.
J. Flo January 21, 2013 at 01:27 AM
There have been quadruple the number of fires as on Emilio's list! Small, medium - luckily put out. God Bless our fire department!


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