Spared from wildfire, The Ranch returns to life. But charred hills are around the bend

A golfer tees off at Ben Brown’s Golf Course on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Birds were singing and golfers drove balls down the fairway at Ben Brown’s Golf Course on Wednesday. Amid the serenity of The Ranch at Laguna Beach, it appeared easy to forget that a short golf cart ride away is the devastation reaped by the 200-acre Coastal Fire.

A rabbit darted off the fire road near the operational South Orange County Wastewater Authority Coastal Treatment Plant.

The cavernous moonscape left by the blaze was ringed by pink fire retardant.

An Orange County Transportation Authority staffer accompanied by a wildland firefighter was surveying damage to 32 acres of the 151-acre Pacific Horizon biological preserve for maritime chaparral and coastal sage scrub, which had been restored by the County as part of a program to mitigate freeway construction impacts. With every light breeze, a campfire-like smell filled the air.

The Coastal Fire burn area as seen from Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park looking toward Laguna Niguel on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

On May 11, General Manager Kurt Bjorkman was sitting in Los Angeles traffic after meeting with travel agents when he received a call from his boss Mark Christy. Laguna Beach fire division chief Api Weinert had called Christy as a courtesy to inform him that firefighters were working on a brush fire in Aliso Canyon. Bjorkman touched base with his assistant general manager RJ Bear who was on site but unaware of the fire. He called back minutes later as the fire exploded.

“He’s been here 25 years and I’ve never heard his voice shaking and it was shaking,” Bjorkman said.

After receiving an evacuation order from Laguna Beach police, Ranch staff emptied the property of over 500 staff and guests in 22 minutes. Golf managers raced out onto the course to notify golfers their game was over. Restaurant patrons left their unfinished meals and beverages on the tables at Harvest. Overnight hotel guests and corporate retreat attendees were evacuated to Lost Pier Cafe—many had to leave their luggage in their rooms.

Kurt Bjorkman, general manger of the Ranch at Laguna Beach, locks a fire road gate at the north end of the resort on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

“That was very emotional because you’re a steward of these people’s lives and that’s what people don’t understand who aren’t in the industry,” Bjorkman said. “In a hotel of any kind, whether it’s a roadside motel or a resort, there are very few businesses that are as personal as having someone sleep at your business overnight.”

Bjorkman’s counterparts at Montage Laguna Beach and Surf & Sand Resort answered his calls to take in the Ranch’s overnight guests.

“Both of whom were incredibly responsive and helpful. We all tell each other if you ever need anything let me know. It was like, well, I’m letting you know,” he added.

At Harvest’s organic farm, two staff members volunteered to corral a flock of chickens in their cars. The fowl evacuation was called off as the winds switched direction.

On Wednesday, the shells of multiple hilltop homes burned out by the wind-blown fire were visible from the canyon floor. Twenty homes were destroyed and 11 more were damaged in Laguna Niguel before the fire could be fully contained.

Christy and Bjorkman stayed at the property the first night of the fire to keep watch for looky-loos and other trespassers. Christy confronted one man who initially claimed to be a private investigator but later changed his story.

Unable to retrieve their bags, guests made lists of medications, eyeglasses, and contact lenses. Ranch staff worked until 10 p.m. going room-to-room escorted by Laguna Beach police officers to retrieve these essential items, Bjorkman said.

An Orange County Fire Authority truck was parked north of the SOCWA Coastal Treatment Plant on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The following day the Ranch was allowed to reopen for regular business—at least as much as possible with an active fire burning over the hill.

“On the staff side, we’ve been through Covid and closures so we’re really closely emotionally attached to our team. We focus a lot on emotional intelligence and emotional stability. So our team—I don’t want to say they’re unfettered by this—but they’re so excited at this point to come back.”

Supervisors continued to check in on how their teammates’ were feeling for days after the evacuation.

Edgar Lopez, who has worked as a Ranch coffee bar barista for five years, wasn’t working the day of the fire but heard from his brother Luis that he had been sent home early from bartending at Harvest because of the fire.

“My initial thought was it was in the kitchen. He said, ‘No. It’s the Canyon,’” Lopez said.

His focus then turned to his girlfriend’s mother who was forced to evacuate from her Laguna Niguel home. Lopez was happy to be back at work on Wednesday serving coffee and hard seltzers to guests.

Kam Pabla, 54, and Indy Pabla, 54, of Toronto sipped coffee next to a fire pit Wednesday while visiting the United States for the first time in seven years. Their daughter attended a corporate meeting at The Ranch and invited them to join her. They heard about the Coastal Fire on Canadian news channels before the trip.

“It’s beautiful but so sad that this is going on,” Kam Pabla said.

She felt terrible for those homeowners whose houses burned in the Coastal Fire. The drought’s visible impacts caught her eye as a visiting Canadian.

“It’s like a different planet. Everything is brown,” Kam Pabla said.

The Coastal Fire burn area as seen from Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park looking toward the SOCWA Coastal Treatment Plant on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
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