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Stirring the Ashes

By Anthony Kaufman, Special to the Independent No one was sure what started the blaze that had ravaged this beachside community.

2 ashes Fire from Main Beach Oct 27 1993 ron chilcote

A couple on Main Beach watch as fire wraps advances on the north end of town. Photo by Ron Chilcote.

I would interview those I knew who had lost their homes and look for a compelling story. I would please my East Coast editor with the tale of a little girl who saved her baby brother or an architect who kept the flames at bay with a garden hose. Then I would leave. My mother lived on Top of the World.  My father had lived on Skyline, which was swept up in the conflagration. Bluebird. Alta Vista. Summit. These were the other hillside communities. Emerald. Crystal. Three Arch. These were the beachside bays. Names I haven’t uttered in years. The strangest aftertaste is left on your tongue when speaking the proper names of youth. But “Laguna Beach Fires” sounds like a ready-made headline. Beaches don’t care about fire; sand isn’t flammable. How did Laguna Beach, a seaside resort-town, go up in flames? See Burnt Homes, page 5. My father’s new house in South Laguna was bought in a fit of vengeance after losing his first one—not in the fires—but in a bitter divorce some years earlier.  Twice as large. Better ocean view. More decks, wrapping around the circumference of the house like the rings of Saturn. He was lucky. Around 20 families were still homeless, living in shelters or on the couches of friends. When my father closed on his new home, you could smell the smoke in the air. “What do you remember about the night of the fires?” I asked him. “I was totally relieved,” he said. “Just think if I hadn’t gotten out of Skyline, I would be playing games with insurance adjustors for years.” My mother’s story was different. “We knew the fire was coming up the mountain. Phil watered in front of the house, while I watched the same clips over and over again on the TV news: A ball of fire plowing through Emerald Bay. We were gathering paintings and furniture to evacuate. Our neighbor was screaming because she couldn’t find her cat. We were terrified.” “But all the houses on Top of the World were untouched,” I said. “Yes,” she said. “Not like Skyline. Not like your father’s old house. They’re not letting people over there, you know.” I made special arrangements the next day to visit. It wasn’t like the Mexico earthquakes or the Mississippi floods. A firestorm leaves little trace. What I saw on Skyline was mostly empty space. Holes were homes should be.  Scorched brown earth instead of grass. Those houses that weren’t annihilated had already been torn down and cleared away. Now there was only the view into the canyon below. Unlike the other houses that had burned down in the fires, my father’s was not yet a home. A mere transitional object. I was working on making it a home, attempting to fill it with memories. During the two years we lived there, I had gotten sick with mononucleosis, lost my virginity, got drunk for the first time, and watched my brother high on hallucinogens. Ages 16 to 18 are a remarkably fertile time for memories. A few feet away from me, I noticed another man standing on the charred earth. We turned towards each other. Two men standing in the middle of nowhere. He was tall, much older. “You used to live there?” “Yes,” he said slowly. “You?” “It was my father’s, but we moved before,” I replied. “I remember you,” he said. “My boy was a few years older.” He looked out at his home. It was there, too, the way he stared. I could see him discern the lines of the garage, the front door, the living room couch and out to the back deck. He shook off the mirage in front of him and turned to me. “The most important thing a family can do after a fire is let go of the past,” he said. Two days later, I left Laguna, with ashes in its past and more patios in its future. I wrote a story for my East Coast paper about a little girl who saved her baby brother. Before we moved to Southern California, my family had a summer home on Long Island. I was too young to remember it, but there is a picture of the family standing in front of it, this big, colonial-style white cottage that must have stood there for a century. There was a white wooden porch that formed a rim around the back of the house, which as a child, I may have crawled under and listened to those stepping above me, asking my whereabouts. In the picture, my mother and father stand behind my brother and me; she wears immense round ‘70s sunglasses that obscure the entire upper part of her face, while he looks just off to the left, somewhere completely different from the rest of us. Both of them don’t seem to belong, as if you could cut them out of the picture, and place them somewhere else, leaving only the majestic house in the background, with the white deck winding around the outside. I imagine it’s still there.   Anthony Kaufman, LBHS Class of 1990, is a film journalist and part-time assistant professor, now based in Maine.

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