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Fire and A Glimpse of the Future

 

By James Utt
By James Utt        

The fire that started in Laguna Canyon was, unbelievably, roaring down the hill toward our home in the Turtle Rock section of Irvine. The police had ordered an evacuation. Now came the decision no one ever wants to make: Quick, what things do we throw in our cars as a natural disaster barrels toward us?

Obviously kids, dog, and then what? I honestly cannot remember. We probably jammed clothes, photos, and other personal mementos into our small cars. For some reason, I thought it important to take the bills we had not yet paid. Our early Mac, the one that looked like a toaster, did not make the cut. As we drove away from our house made of wood with a shake shingle roof, I was sure I would never see it again.

But the gods of good fortune and wind saved Turtle Rock that day. But, Laguna Beach was not so lucky as over 400 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Seeing photos of the fire’s path in the newspapers was shocking enough, but my wife wanted to see the destruction first hand. She had been raised in Laguna Beach and had to see how much her beloved town was scarred.

Not being familiar with the town, she took the wheel and drove us to a region called Temple Hills. From that point, we were able to look across at what, I was later to learn, was Mystic Hills. On streets she identified as Tahiti, Caribbean, and Skyline, there was absolute devastation. One lone unburned house stood on Tahiti. The rest of the homes were black spots of ash, some with chimneys still standing as lonely sentinels. Never having seen what mother nature, or in this case an idiot arsonist could do, I returned to Irvine, shaken and sad.

Eight years later, my wife had had enough of Irvine. She wanted to go back to her roots, to the town she never stopped loving, back to Laguna Beach. A house had just come on the market and it was love at first site. We had to act quickly because others were also interested. We put in the best offer and the house, with its magnificent view, was ours. Incredibly, our new home was on Tahiti Avenue where one of those pile of ashes, so shocking to see in 1993, previously lay.

And so started the best years of our marriage. The first several months, we would always pause as we walked from the bedroom to the kitchen and take in the view. The rolling green hills, the village below, and the ocean beyond. On a clear winter’s day, we could see San Clemente Island. If there were a few clouds, then sunsets threw off a beautiful purple hue.

There were anniversary dinners at the one and only Cafe Zoolu, with Michael cooking and Toni taking orders. Like the Zagat Guide said, it had the “Best swordfish on the planet.”

We loved going to movies at the tiny theater on Coast Highway. Small, smelly and charming, it even had bird customers who flew in from their perch on the traffic light at Broadway. After a movie, we sometimes stopped at The Marine Room to hear a set by The Missiles of October.

Up and down Forest Avenue, there was always something to see, admire, or buy. My wife loved jewelry and she, therefore, loved Rock Martin. We never just walked by, but always went in to see the beautiful wares and enjoy the friendly service.

Then there was tennis at Alta Laguna Park. If there is a more picturesque place to play the game, please let me know.

All this and more I would have missed if I had won the argument my wife and I had when we decided to leave purgatory, I mean, Irvine. “Laguna Beach, for sure,” she said. I thought Corona del Mar would be a better fit. Remember though, I was only 53, just a kid with a silly dream. It was the best argument I ever lost.

It has finally rained this past winter, which is a good thing for the state but has caused the hillside below my home to sprout mounds of flammable bushes. I long for the goatherd and its dependable shepherd to make their appearance and consume everything in their path.

I still see the terrifying flames coming toward Turtle Rock in 1993. I still remember the ashes on Tahiti that unbeknownst to me would one day be my home. I still mourn the wife I lost to cancer in 2013. She wanted to die at home so she could enjoy our beautiful view for whatever number of days she had left. Although too short, she had a life well lived in our wonderful town.

 

James Utt still hates Santa Ana winds.

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