The Car Column

By John Baeke

As a transplant from Tornado Alley in Kansas, I was all too familiar with the sounds of Civil Defense sirens and running for shelter. I likened the randomness of where that night’s tornado would strike to the Nazi buzz bombs dropping on London. You knew, somewhere in the city, there would be tears.

The tires and interior of this seven-series BMW are toast.

Once you can sigh in the relief of no loss of life, the reality of the overwhelming devastation sets in. As the hopeless car guy I am, it always caused me pain to see the twisted and mangled remains of vintage motorcars. I knew each one must have had a wonderful story to

It’s ironic to find a Triumph SpitFire in the aftermath of a fire.

tell: trips to the ice cream parlor; weddings, parades … but never again.

Though life in California is blissfully free of tornados, wildfires may be worse. Knowing how pervasive the car-culture is in our sunny state, I was drawn to visit Malibu a day after the rain that finally extinguished the horrible Woolsey fire.

This fire eventually killed three, destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and torched 100,000 acres. My self-imposed assignment was to survey the rubble and witness firsthand the effect this latest firestorm had on our motoring treasures. I would remain respectful by not touching a thing.

A very desirable early ’60s Mercedes 220SE cabriolet, from left, a 1965 Ford Thunderbird, and an early ’70s Mercedes 450SL.

As a surgeon, I am able to remain strong in the face of blood and suffering. I was unprepared for what I saw.

To most, Malibu is nothing but a line of bumper-to-bumper traffic along Pacific Coast Highway, with a long row of compact beach homes. What few see is what is tucked in the miles of hills rising above the PCH in the Santa Monica Mountains. Here, cloistered away behind gilded gates, stuccoed walls and perfectly manicured hedgerows, are magnificent Mediterranean villas with unparalleled vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands. This is the beautiful Malibu.

It is difficult to comprehend how a fire that began many miles inland near Calabasas could not be extinguished long before reaching Malibu. Indeed, the mountains in between are mostly non-forested and uninhabited. Residents I met were outspoken in their criticism of public works and city government; telling of their water being diverted and electricity being shut off (thus deactivating well pumps).

This 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline survived, but the owner’s Honda and home did not.

After fires in 2002, one neighborhood had the foresight to invest in their own private fire truck. As it was related to me, during the Woolsey fire the local fire department commandeered their truck, which later was found to be abandoned. Several homes in their neighborhood burned.

The fire consumed entire subdivisions and would then jump over a dozen homes before engulfing others of seeming identical construction. I learned that stucco burns, glass explodes, and cars melt. I also learned that one man with a garden hose can save a home.

Sadly, I had no difficulty finding beautiful motorcars destroyed, both daily drivers and collectors’ dream rides. To see these gems, now ash, still sitting on the front drive or inside a garage, speaks to the horror families experienced as fast-moving flames forced them to decide what must be left behind. With their shiny paint burned away, the remains of these cars now sit, rusting in the tears of their owners.