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It is simply what Malibu does from time to time.
Tornadoes take the flatlands of the Midwest. Floods rise in the American South. Hurricanes rage against the Gulf of Mexico. And California burns.
The land caught fire time and again when it was inhabited by the Chumash in 500 B.C.E. It caught fire in the 1800s when Spanish colonizers claimed the area. It caught fire on December 4, 1903, when Frederick and May Rindge owned the stretch of land now called Malibu.
The flames seized thirty miles of coastland and consumed their Victorian beach house. Malibu caught fire in 1917 and 1929, well after the first movie stars got there. It caught fire in 1956 and 1958, when the long-boarders and beach bunnies trickled to its shores. It caught fire in 1970 and 1978, after the hippies settled in its canyons. It caught fire in 1982, 1985, in 1993, 1996, in 2003, 2007, and 2018. And times in between.
Because it is Malibu’s nature to burn.
At the city line of Malibu today stands a sign that reads, Malibu, 27 MILES OF SCENIC BEAUTY. The long, thin township—an area that hugs the slim coast for almost thirty miles—is made up of ocean and mountain, split by a two-lane throughway called the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH.
To the west of PCH is a long series of beaches cradling the crystal blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. In many areas along the coast, beach houses are crammed along the side of the highway, competing for views, narrow and tall. The coastline is jagged and rocky. The waves are brisk and clear. The air smells of fresh brine.
Directly to the east of PCH lie the immense, arid mountains. They dominate the skyline, sage green and umber, composed of desert shrubs and wild trees, brittle underbrush.
This is dry land. A tinderbox. Blessed and cursed with a breeze.
The local Santa Ana winds speed through the mountains and valleys from the inland to the shore, hot and strong. Myth says they are agents of chaos and disorder. But what they really are is an accelerant.
A tiny spark in the dry desert wood can grow to a blaze and run wild, burning bright orange and red. It devours the land and exhales thick black smoke that overtakes the sky, dimming the sun for miles, ash falling like snow.
Habitats—brush and shrubs and trees—and homes—cabins and mansions and bungalows, ranches and vineyards and farms—go up in smoke and leave behind a scorched earth.
But that land is young once again, ready to grow something new.
Destruction. And renewal, rising from the ashes. The story of fire.
The Malibu fire of 1983 started not in the dry hills but on the coastline.
It began at 28150 Cliffside Drive on Saturday, August 27—at the home of Nina Riva—during one of the most notorious parties in Los Angeles history.
The annual party grew wildly out of control sometime around midnight.
By 7:00 a.m., the coastline of Malibu was engulfed in flames.
Because, just as it is in Malibu’s nature to burn, so was it in one particular person’s nature to set fire and walk away.
Saturday, August 27, 1983
7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Nina Riva woke up without even opening her eyes.
Consciousness seeped into her slowly, as if breaking the morning to her gently. She lay in bed dreaming of her surfboard underneath her chest in the water, before she began remembering reality—that hundreds of people were going to descend upon her house in just over twelve hours. As she came to, it dawned on her once again that every single person who would show up tonight would know the indignity of what had happened to her.
She lamented it all without even peeking through the curtains of her own eyelashes.
If Nina listened closely, she could hear the ocean crashing below the cliff—just faintly.
She had always envisioned buying a home like the one she and her siblings grew up in down on Old Malibu Road. A shabby beach bungalow off of PCH, built on stilts, extended out over the sea. She had fond memories of sea spray on the windows, of half-rotted wood and rusting metal holding up the ground beneath her feet. She wanted to stand on her patio and look down in order to see high tide, hear the waves crashing loudly underneath her.
But Brandon had wanted to live on a cliff.
So he’d gone and bought them this glass-and-concrete mansion, in the cliffside enclave of Point Dume, fifty feet above the coastline, a steep walk down the rocks and steps to the breaking waves.
Nina listened as best she could for the sounds of the water and she did not open her eyes. Why should she? There was nothing for her to see.
Brandon was not in her bed. Brandon...