It was the early ‘70s and neighbor Ralph Davis pleaded with the Orange County Planning Commission, “Remember the Bel Air fire!” Somehow he had been there, perhaps as a firefighter. Ridge and hill top development above South Laguna was being considered by the Commission. Davis was emphatic, “Ridge tops are in the most danger from wildfire. Fire burns up hill.” He wanted them to remove development from the hill tops altogether, or at least set it back from the edge. Since the Commission seemed not to be impressed, at the next hearing he brought his movie projector and showed a film. Walls of fire filled the screen: 484 homes were destroyed, 16,090 acres burned in the ‘61 Bel Air fire. Still the Commission seemed to have a “thank you very much” response.
By the early 1990s the development had been built, South Laguna had been annexed and I was on the Laguna Beach city council. Davis’s warnings were far from my mind as I stepped out onto our porch in the early morning of Oct. 27, 1993. It was memorably eerie, totally still. I could feel the unusual heat and dryness. Why was it already so hot, when the sun wasn’t even appearing yet over the hills behind us?
As the day unfolded someone mentioned a fire in Laguna Canyon. I called the city manager’s office. “Ken’s gone up to the top of the hill near his house to take a look,” his secretary said. Later I would learn that as Ken Frank reached the top of Mystic Hills, the fire jumped the canyon, flamed up to the ridge and in seconds reached the area of his house. It was all he could do to make it back down the hill.
As mayor pro tem, I asked, “What can I do?” Nothing to be done but let the firefighters do their jobs, I was told. Still, as I saw a steady train of cars loaded with people and household goods heading south below the window of my Coast Highway office, I thought I should at least see what was going on first hand. So Alfredo and I drove up Temple Hills Drive to the end of Alta Laguna Boulevard. From there we saw the smoke and flames from Canyon Acres and Mystic Hills. Thurston Middle School was on fire. Planes were nearly at eye level dropping fire retardant. Perhaps the retardant was working, because there was no frightening wall of fire, just low flames heading slowly toward us. The fire was not under control however, because by the time we thought we should leave, Temple Hills Drive had been closed. We joined the Top of the World evacuees heading across the fire road to Arch Beach Heights.
As we looked to the ocean from the top of Nyes Place the sky was black with a few edges of red from the setting sun. Was this the end of our town? The end of our world here in our enclave by the sea?
Back at home refugees came to spend the night. Betty Swenson called. Her car had broken down at Diamond Street. She’d been separated from her husband who was driving another car with the cats. She had the dog. Alfredo went to pick her up. As she came in she saw our helper Maria sitting at the edge of her seat reading prayers from a tiny book. “Would you like something to eat, Betty?” Alfredo asked. “No, but I’ll have one of those,” she said, pointing to the beer on the table. The dog was unaccustomed to wood floors and wouldn’t move from the little carpet in front of the television.
So this unlikely group, the Mexican maid praying, the elderly woman drinking beer, the floor-fearing dog, and Alfredo and I spent the evening in our tiny family room watching the TV version of Laguna in flames.
The next morning as we headed north on the highway we wondered would our town still be there? The hills behind City Hall were gray and black. There was still smoke and ash. It was plain that the losses were tremendous and many had lost their homes. But contrary to the impression left by television, the whole town had not been destroyed. At the Main Beach command post, a mix of residents, fire-fighters, city officials, reporters and politicians from all levels of government mingled chaotically. “Is your house still there?” was heard over and over. We were all in shock. We learned that City Manager Ken Frank, assistant city manager Cindy King and councilmember Bob Gentry were among the hundreds who had lost their homes. Even though they valiantly carried on with their duties, it was overwhelmingly difficult.
Then Gov. Pete Wilson spoke unsympathetically, blaming Laguna and its small streets for the extent of the damage. Our mayor and councilmembers were not allowed to speak as part of the press conference. As a result, Laguna residents did not hear from their council and our concern for those who had lost so much until the first council meeting. It was not soon enough. So many were hurt and angry. While there were many kind people whose focus was on helping those who had lost their homes and mending the damage, there was also a lot of blame going around. Divisiveness and controversy followed the fire for years afterwards.
The fire was a landmark event and many things changed as a result.
Environmentalism was cast as the opposite of public safety, even though as my neighbor Ralph Davis pointed out years back, an environmentally sound decision is also a decision that promotes public safety.
New councilmembers with public safety platforms were elected, changing the direction of city decision-making on many fronts.
Along with being viewed as benign and beautiful, the natural open space around Laguna came to evoke a fearful response as well. Last year’s defeat of Measure CC, which would have enlarged our greenbelt preserve, is one result of Laguna citizens’ after-fire ambivalence about open space.
With flickering firelight we see only a little bit at a time. Looking back 20 years, the patterns become clearer. Fire lessons are illuminated and balanced with many equally important issues are also considered. Time to move on with a balanced perspective, finding ways to keep the beauty of our environment while making it safer.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph served on Laguna Beach’s City Council.