Millions in Malibu Real Estate Goes Up in Smoke

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."

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