Fires ripped through a star-studded stretch of Malibu this week, destroying multimillion-dollar homes and bringing national attention to one of America's most bewildering communities -- a small city that is home to 12 billionaires and where celebrities mingle comfortably with regular folks.
Five homes were lost in the fires, including one owned by actress Suzanne Somers, the sexy spokeswoman for Thigh Master and star of the 1970s television sitcom, "Three's Company."
Six other homes were damaged in the three-hour blaze, which is still under investigation.
Real estate agents from Sotheby's International watched the expensive properties go up in flames from their office window.
Sotheby's lists beachfront homes -- rather celebrity fortresses -- ranging from $4 million for a modest estate with five bedrooms and a four-car garage, to a $40 million compound with eight bathrooms, a guard house, and a tennis pavilion.
"I could see the flames from my office last night," said Danielle Hobb, a receptionist for Sotheby's, who said that many of the older beach houses had been torn down to make way for even bigger estates on California's coastal paradise.
With billionaires rubbing elbows with commoners, Malibu and the word "exclusive" have long been paired.
But, says Mayor Ken Kearsley, a 46-year resident, the community is mostly made up of teachers, engineers and lawyers. "Celebrities are not cocktail conversation here."
"I'm as plain as an old sock," said Kearsley, 69. "I haven't been to a movie since 1966, and I wouldn't know a celebrity if I ran into one. We don't define people by their celebrity, and we have an unwritten rule in Malibu that if you see a celebrity, you don't go up and bother them."
Real estate values have soared in Malibu. Kearsley bought his home in 1966 for $38,000, and it is now worth millions.
"God's not making any more Malibus. We just sit here, and the values go up. My children read the obits and see if I've died so they can make some money," he said.
Still, even some non-Hollywood types are well-heeled. The fires also destroyed the home of noted restaurateur Al Eringer, who founded the nearby landmark Saddle Peak Lodge, which serves up kangaroo and other wild-game delicacies specially grown for high-end palates.
No injuries were reported in the fires, as most of the residents use their oceanfront palaces as second homes. Both Somers and Eringer were away.
The fire spread like Hollywood gossip, starting along the Pacific Coast Highway, just down the road from where Cher owns a luxury, palm-encircled Mediterranean hideaway overlooking the ocean.
Nearby, sits the Malibu Colony Plaza -- a trendy strip of shops, restaurants and coffeehouses that has been featured on the HBO show "Entourage." A popular spot for celebrity sighting, it was featured in a scene where the "boys" grocery shop and house-hunt in this celebrity enclave.
The Santa Ana winds fanned the flames, sending the fire down the hill to a two-mile band of Malibu Road where Adam Sandler, Barry Manilow, John Cusack, Tony Danza, Victoria Principal and Mira Sorvino live. Former homeowners include Bill Murray and Shirley MacLaine.
Musical A-list stars like Bono, Jennifer Lopez and Pete Townshend have taken summer rentals in the neighborhood, where monthly rents can be as high as $60,000 a month, according to Bill Rhodes, president of the Malibu Road Association. In Malibu Colony that number could be $100,000.
A smaller lot of land on Malibu Road is worth about $6 million, according to Rhodes, a real estate agent and resident. Currently, an 'ex' of fashion designer Perry Ellis sold her home for more than $20 million, he said.
Still, these celebrities, especially in times of disaster, "are just people," Rhodes said.
"Most of these actors and actresses live out here because they like the small-town feeling. You might end up at the movies with Barbra Streisand or at the supermarket with Pierce Brosnan," he said.
The city, with its 27-mile coastline -- the longest in California -- calls bragging rights for residents like Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli, and Mel Gibson. And former stars Frank Sinatra, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Carroll O'Connor.
Malibu has a long history of providing a playground for Hollywood stars.
From the late 1800s until 1938, Malibu was the exclusive property of Massachusetts millionaires Frederick and May Rindge, who founded Union Oil and Southern California Edison. They owned the entire Malibu coastline, and cut off the public with chained gates and armed guards patrolling on horseback.
The "Malibu Colony" became a favorite of movie stars when it opened up to the public for the first time in 1929. With money problems, the widowed May Rindge was forced to invite a few wealthy celebrities to build vacation homes on her private beach.
A small cloister of Hollywood celebrities arrived in the early 1930s with stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Clara Bow, Ronald Coleman and Gloria Swanson. Like Rindge, celebrities prized their privacy, and the colony offered protection from the curious public.
Today, the gated community -- not far from the fire-ravaged area -- is a virtual who's who of Hollywood, with residents who include Pamela Anderson, Barbra Streisand, Ted Danson, Courteney Cox-Arquette, Tom Hanks, Linda Ronstadt, Larry Hagman, Jeff Bridges and Howie Mandell, according to the Web site Seeing-stars.com.
When Johnny Carson bought his Malibu Colony beach home in 1983 for $10 million, it was the most expensive house ever sold in Los Angeles County, and had 24-karat gold fixtures in the bath, a waterfall, and 11,000 square feet of living space, the Web site says.
Malibu's dazzling beach property has been a battleground for challenging California law that holds the ocean belongs to everyone. In 2002, record mogul and film producer David Geffen waged an unsuccessful war to keep celebrity gawkers and surfers off his property.
Other stars -- like Julie Andrews and her husband, Blake Edwards -- complained that surfers were destroying their pristine views of the sea.
"The real issue here is money," Steve Hoye told Environmental News after forming an activist group Access for All. "These people who live on the beach here think that the public cannot be trusted to walk or swim in front of these million-dollar houses."
Since Geffen's failed lawsuit, the public is free to roam up to the mean tide line, the part of the beach that remains wet at high tide, Rhodes said.
"We welcome the public if they treat it well, and they don't drink and bring their dogs and cause problems," Rhodes said.
Besides the beach, hot-button issues in the city are much like those in the rest of the United States -- real estate values, the demise of small businesses, and development that changes the community, according to Malibu Times Editor Laura Tate.
But the fires this week have also inflamed environmentalists, who say development on the fragile coastline comes at a cost.
Fires in 1993 destroyed the $4 million Carbon Mesa Road home of actor Sean Penn and his then-wife, Madonna. The Rambla Pacifico home of actress Ali McGraw also burned to the ground. Nearly lost were the houses of Mel Gibson and Richard Gere. Others like Charles Bronson, Gary Busey, and Bruce Willis and former wife Demi Moore were spared.
Many blame the coastal chaparral or sage brush that surrounds these homes for fires, but it is a natural protector against mudslides. The real culprits are the ornamental vegetation celebrities use for their landscaping, according to Mark Massara, who directs the Sierra Club's coastal program.
Sprawling development not only hurts the ecosystem, but increases fire danger, he said.
Witnesses noted that the fires hit some houses and skipped over others, a characteristic of the sage, which burns at a lower temperature than a popular plant like eucalyptus, which "blows up like bombs," Massara said.
After a fire, brush re-establishes itself within days, and its seed bank helps prevent erosion -- responsible for the devastating mudslides that have thrown so many million-dollar Malibu homes into the sea.
But, says Kearsley, Malibu's mayor, celebrities are generous with city environmental projects, including a $25 million plan to save water runoff from polluting the beaches, where 14 million tourists visit each year.
"It's important that we welcome visitors," he said, noting the city had many access points to the celebrity beaches.
Fellow Councilwoman Sharon Barovsky agrees that regular Joes and movie stars can live in harmony in this idyllic seaside town.
It drives me nuts," Barovsky said. "People love to talk about Malibu being elitist, and it sells papers, but most people are hardworking, really decent people and it would be really nice if once in a while, instead of being ashamed, we realized how lucky we are to live here."