It was a good mid-October day, all signs pointed to the sublime: blue skies, warm-enough water, glassy surf. In a little beach town trampled by summer tourists, it was finally a locals’ haven again. “It’s a good day,” Frank said.
And a far cry from where he was standing 20 years ago.
He was at the beach then, too, but it was Main Beach, and not to read and nap but to stand with other stricken residents as night was falling and flames were crawling over the hills and devouring their homes, even his Mystic Hills neighborhood, where almost all the houses combusted to ashes.
The city’s Command Center had abruptly been moved to Main Beach from Thurston Middle School when fire roared up the canyon walls. Shortly before, Frank and two other City Hall employees were driving up Skyline together to check out their houses. Unwittingly, they were within a few feet of the fire’s hot and hungry tongue.
“As we drove up Skyline,” recalled Frank, “there was a vacant lot on the left-hand side and flames were blowing across that lot. The fire had changed so quickly, the wind had changed so quickly. We got to my house on the 1500 block of Skyline and the wind was just ferocious, the heat was ferocious.”
The plan, said Frank, was to go into the house and watch the fire on the other side of Laguna Canyon from his back patio. With erratic Santa Ana winds, the fire had already reversed its direction and jumped Laguna Canyon Road from north Laguna, rapidly razing the Canyon Acres enclave and heading full-throttle up the cliffs to Mystic Hills.
“We did not know the fire had crossed the road,” Frank said. “It’s a pretty steep hill and, even though we had grazed part of it with the goats, there were just no firefighters up at the top.”
Available firefighting engines and manpower were severely limited due to 20 other wildfires erupting around the region. That, combined with the unpredictable winds, doomed the 391 homes and 14,000 acres of wilderness that burned in Laguna that day.
Frank surmised that if the firefighters had been able to get there, the houses might have been saved. “But they just couldn’t move the resources fast enough from north Laguna to Laguna Canyon Road and get them up the hill,” he said. “The wind changed so dramatically and it was so powerful. Even if they would have been there, they would have needed a couple of engine companies for each house.”
Many of the houses in Mystic Hills had shake roofs back then and the fire was jumping from rooftop to rooftop. “It was really impossible to save the houses,” said Frank, citing the combination of shake roofs, underbrush around houses and shifting winds. “I didn’t expect the house to be there. My house burned down to nothing, down to the concrete slabs. I mean, there was nothing left.”
The fire was finally contained in Hidden Valley, in an area of undeveloped slopes. With 306 fire engines, 25 hand crews, 19 bulldozers and 19 air tankers finally coming together, Frank said, “the fire was kind of directed into Hidden Valley and by that time they had engines all around Hidden Valley on Temple Hills, on Alta Laguna and on Park Avenue. I watched for awhile and it was clear they weren’t going to let the fire get out of Hidden Valley; that was the end of it.”
Deciding it was unsafe to try to retrieve any personal items from his house earlier that day, a recent divorce made the decision even easier. “My ex-wife had taken everything of value out of the house,” he said. “So, in a sense, I did okay. I got a new house and new furniture; you have to look at it that way.”
But Frank, who was talking about his experience for the first time since ’93, does ruminate about a few things. “Stupid things, like my baseball mitt from high school that you can never replace,” he said. “My bowling ball from junior high and high school. And, yeah, my comic book collection from when I was a little kid. I had a couple thousand comic books.” And he’s sorry for his two sons, all of their personal belongings, including years of baseball-card collecting and sports trophies, went up in the flames. “None of that stuff can be replaced,” he said.
But there was no time for regrets then. There was work to do. First, Frank had to find a place to stay for the night. And clean clothes. “The first night I spent in women’s sweat clothes from my friend,” he said. “I had one set of clothes that was smelly.”
The next day, he found the last available apartment at a building across from Heisler Park and Las Brisas restaurant where he lived for the two years it took to rebuild his house. “I lucked out,” he said. Local stores quickly responded to the 911, offering 50 percent discounts to people who lost homes in the fire. “I mean, I just dressed in Hobie clothes for awhile,” Frank said.
Now Frank has an updated house with the same footprint but a better view. In the old days of tract homes in Mystic Hills, the houses weren’t oriented to the canyon views. “Love the house now,” Frank said. “In terms of the same footprint, the four corners of the house are exactly the same. I did not enlarge it at all because I didn’t want to deal with Design Review or any issue with Design Review.” And it’s got a fireproof roof. “It’s a house where I can live for awhile because there’s no stairs, never was. My intent is to live here for the foreseeable future.”
But the views don’t compensate for the experience, he said. “I was fortunate. But I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he stated. “There was some benefit out of it, but you lost a lot. And the town lost a lot, even though we saw the whole community come together in a show of support, and that was kind of nice.”