Sunday, October 21, 2007

Torah scrolls evacuated as fire threatens Chabad of Malibu

A wildfire fueled by 50 mph Santa Ana winds and rising temperatures burned about 1,000 acres in the Malibu Hills area on Sunday, claiming several area businesses and landmarks, including Castle Kashan and Malibu Presbyterian Church, as well as threatening Pepperdine University.

Area homeowners were under mandatory evacuation, and Chabad of Malibu at 22933 Pacific Coast Highway removed its four Torah scrolls as shifting winds caused the fast-moving fire to crisscross a ridgeline above the synagogue in Sweetwater Canyon.

Fire officials put the start of the Canyon Fire started at 4:55 a.m., but several residents say they smelled smoke a few hours earlier. Three homes, the church and three business at Malibu Colony Shopping Center were destroyed, according to Los Angeles Fire Department officials.

Other areas reporting fires Sunday include Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Santa Rosa Valley, Placerita Canyon, Castaic and Fontana. The National Weather Service has issued red-flag warnings for Los Angeles and Ventura counties until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The fire in the canyon above Chabad of Malibu had yet to be contained as of Sunday afternoon. Strong winds destroyed a Chabad of Malibu sign, but no other harm had come to the synagogue or its adjacent kosher restaurant, recently renamed B.B.C. By the Sea (at left in photo.)

Rabbi Levi Cunin, spiritual leader of Chabad of Malibu, said he smelled smoke and called the fire department shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday.

"The first thing I did was get my wife and kids out," said Cunin, 36. "A lot of our people who come to Chabad -- many of them live in the area -- and they had to evacuate."

In addition to assisting congregants and neighbors, Cunin also ensured that Chabad of Malibu's four Torahs were safe; each was strapped into the backseat of his sedan.

"Living here in Malibu, knowing how quickly fires [can spread], it's better to be safe than sorry," he said. "We took out the Torah, the chumashim, the siddurs, we took them all out."

Just north of Pepperdine, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue was abandoned save for a few residents watching the fire from the shul's parking lot.

Dawn Cunnion, who has lived at Malibu Country Estates for about 10 years, was evacuated at 6:30 a.m. Her home was visible from the parking lot.

"We're keeping an eye on it. We found a shady place ... where we could get out quickly. From this vantage point at least we've got a perspective as to what's going on," she said.

Cunnion said she's been through several fires, but this is her first mandatory evacuation.

"The one across the street ... was pretty scary too," she said, referring to a fire in January that destroyed four homes, including one that belonged to Suzanne Somers. "We had winds, but not these kinds of winds."

Residents have been evacuated to Zuma Beach and Agoura Hills High School.

As at Malibu Jewish Center was Michael Brown, 46, who found himself trapped in Malibu when MTA cancelled Line 534, which serves Pacific Coast Highway. The Los Angeles resident had spent the weekend at a campground across the street from the Reconstructionist congregation adjacent to the Pepperdine campus.

"They shut down the buses, and I needed some water ... so I seen the synagogue. I thought, well I'll get some water, charge up my laptop and be stranded at the beach," said Brown, who took shelter from the wind outside the locked sanctuary as he used an outlet for his computer.

About 15 miles north of Pepperdine at Camp JCA Shalom, religious educator Casey Krebs said there are no plans to evacuate.

"They said if we want, we could get things ready," she said. "We're just waiting and seeing what's happening. We smelled the smoke a lot last night, but we don't really smell it today."

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