MALIBU, Calif. A wildfire driven by powerful Santa Ana wind threatened a university and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Malibu Hills on Sunday, authorities said. Flames destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle.
About 500 firefighters worked to protect Pepperdine University and some 200 homes in the upscale Malibu Crest and Serrah Retreat neighborhoods, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sam Padilla.
The blaze had charred at least 500 acres and had jumped the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in shopping center parking lots along the route. TV footage also showed several buildings in flames in the area.
Faculty and staff at the 830-acre Pepperdine campus were urged to evacuate, school spokesman Jerry Derloshon said. Students had not yet been evacuated, but were being gathered at the campus' basketball arena.
Television news video showed clusters of beach-side homes ablaze.
Flames consumed the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows, as about a dozen residents watched from across a street. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.
Erratic wind gusts pushed flames toward the Hughes Lab technology research campus, about a mile north of Pepperdine.
Flames engulfed Malibu Presbyterian Church, which had been evacuated, said youth pastor Eric Smith. "That's the really good news, that everyone's out and safe," Smith said.
Palm trees bent in half and embers were carried through the air as wind gusted to 60 to 65 mph. Thick smoke obscured the sun.
Susan Nuttall sat in her black Mercedes in a cul-de-sac just off the Pacific Coast Highway, saying she had fled her condo just below the Pepperdine campus.
"We're all scared to death and we have nowhere to go," said Nuttall, 51, still wearing a bathrobe and holding her chihuahua.
Mitra Rajabi came to get her 80-year-old mother from her home near Pepperdine.
"We've been through this before, but it's never been this bad," said Rajabi, 39, of Pacific Palisades. "It was like a war zone."
The Puerco Canyon area was evacuated and a voluntary evacuation was in effect in the Corral Canyon area, Topanga Canyon emergency preparedness spokeswoman Lindajo Loftus said.
Los Angeles fire Inspector Rick Dominguez told KABC news that water-dropping planes were having trouble hitting the fire because the wind was blowing the water before it could reach the ground.
Wildfires had been widely expected in Southern California during the weekend as hot weather and strong Santa Ana wind marked the height of traditional wildfire season after one of the driest rain years on record.
Another wildfire that broke out late Saturday had blackened about 500 acres in northeast Los Angeles County. One shed burned but no homes were immediately threatened and the fire was burning away from a freeway, authorities said.
Fire officials were focused on protecting Piru, a Ventura County town of 1,200 people about 5 miles west of the blaze on the other side of a small lake. A condor preserve also was potentially threatened.