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The reach of past fires in the Malibu area is depicted in these historic maps from the National Park Service. National Park Service
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
2:07 pm PST November 15, 2018

Despite a long history of major wildfire events, there is no real precedent for the catastrophic destruction caused by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Nothing comes close to the scale of the current disaster, estimated at nearly 100,000 acres when the Malibu Surfside News went to press, but the community has repeatedly faced and recovered from wildfire disaster.

The Woolsey Fire followed a similar route through the mountains as historic 1903, 1935, 1956, 1978 and 1982 wildfires. While the current fire has created exponentially more damage, in part because there are more homes in the area, there have been so many fires on this path through the mountains that it has its own designation, “the Decker/Kanan Fire Corridor.”

The first fire on record that traveled this route was the 1903 fire, Exact numbers aren’t available, but newspaper reports from the era suggest that it burned most of Malibu, traveling through multiple canyons, including Malibu Canyon in addition to the Kanan/Decker corridor. Zuma and Trancas canyons burned in this fire, and the fire line reached from Malibu Canyon to Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County. There were few houses in the area at that time, but the fire destroyed the ranch house of Malibu Rancho owner Frederick Hastings Rindge, as well as the homes of numerous homesteaders in the Santa Monica Mountains. It also reportedly killed many thousand head of cattle. 

In 1942, when much of Malibu had been commandeered by the U.S. Army to protect the coast during World War II, soldiers and Civil Defense volunteers found themselves facing not enemy invaders but two major wildfires, one in eastern Malibu in October, a second in November, just days after the first was out. Neither fire impacted western Malibu, but the damage was extensive throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, with Escondido, Ramirez, Latigo, Corral and Malibu canyons heavily impacted. 

The 1956 Newton-Hume-Sherwood Fire may be the closest parallel to the Woolsey Fire in Malibu. Former UCLA librarian and Malibu author Lawrence Clark Powell wrote a terrifying firsthand account of the 1956 fire. The fire, which started in Newton Canyon during 70-90 mile per hour Santa Ana winds on Christmas Day, raged for nearly four days, charring 40,000 acres. 

The Powells and their neighbors, with the help of two Edison line crew workers, fought to save their homes from the firestorm, armed with shovels and garden hoses. They were fortunate, but many were not. In all, 250 homes and structures were destroyed; that was a huge percentage of Malibu homes in an era when there were few houses. 

Just like the Woolsey Fire, the Newton Fire’s path took it directly through Malibu Park and Trancas Canyon.

Powell’s home was destroyed 20 years later, in the 1978 Kanan Fire, which followed the same route, burning through Trancas Canyon as it spread up the coast. In 1978, the fire, following a similar path, jumped the highway at Paradise Cove, destroying much of the mobile home park, but it was stopped before reaching Point Dume. 

Early fire records are incomplete, but it looks as if the only other time Point Dume burned in the 20th century was during the Latigo/Sherwood Fire in 1935, which also followed the Kanan-Decker Corridor, burning 30,000 acres on its way to the coast. That 1935 fire traveled in what appears to have been almost exactly the same route across Point Dume as the Woolsey Fire, burning the west side of the peninsula, and leaving much of the eastern end untouched.

The 1993 Old Topanga Fire spanned 16,516 acres — far smaller than many of the other historic wildfires — and did not follow the route into western Malibu. A total of 388 homes were lost in 1993, and three people died. One victim died saving his cat. 

In the aftermath of the 1993 fire, Malibu residents and businesses came together to form Operation Recovery, which provided a survivors support group and other resources for victims, including networking to help families who lost their homes navigate and expedite the rebuilding process. The community recovered, although it took time. 

Malibu’s fire history reveals not only a legacy of disaster and loss, but also one of resilience. The community has always come together to recover and rebuild, and will do it again. Someday, the Woolsey Fire also will be history.

Malibu has experienced major wildfires in 1903, 1929, 1930, 1935 (35,000 acres), 1938 (25,000 acres), 1943, 1956 (26,000 acres, 100 homes, one death), 1958 (18,000 acres, 75 homes, 10 firefighters injured), 1961, 1970 (28,000 acres, 403 homes, 10 deaths), 1973, 1978 (25,000 acres, 230 homes, two deaths), 1982 (45,000 acres), 1985, 1993 (16,516 acres, 388 homes, three deaths), 1996 and 2007 (4,720 acres, 53 homes, no deaths, but 14,000 people evacuated).