COWAN HEIGHTS — Ten-year-old Jon Anderson had never seen anything like it.
Standing in the driveway of his home, he first smelled the huge fire, then saw sparks and ashes swirling toward him, whipped into a fury by 50 m.p.h. Santa Ana winds.
The relentless wind pushed the blaze through dry brush, creating a firestorm that destroyed more than 60 homes, blackened 48,000 acres and took one life.
Twenty-five years ago today, what became known as the Paseo Grande fire, Orange County's most destructive, began tearing a wide swath of destruction that would stretch from Santa Ana Canyon to Irvine Lake and Lemon Heights.
Scores of firefighters battled the blaze for four days before bringing it under control.
Firefighters today say they are better prepared for such a major fire, but also warn that now is the time when conditions are right for major blazes--and the threat of another major conflagration still exists.
"We're living in the most flammable place in the world," said Anderson, now a hazard reduction supervisor with the Orange County Fire Department.
"Our brush is critical now" because it is dry from years of drought, he warned. "It's been foggy, but with (Santa Ana) winds, a fire could really rip."
County fire officials "have worked to reduce the risk of a fire like (the Paseo Grande), but with the right set of conditions you could see a major fire," said Kathleen Cha, a County Fire Department spokeswoman.
Low humidity coupled with hot Santa Ana winds can whip up a small fire, pushing it mercilessly toward homes and through open ranges.
Those were the conditions on Oct. 29, 1967. The fire is believed to have been sparked by children playing with matches in western Riverside County. First reported in the late afternoon near Green River Drive, southwesterly gusts quickly pushed the flames across the Orange County line.
In minutes, the blaze broke into different fronts, tearing toward Santa Ana Canyon, Villa Park, Cowan Heights and Irvine Lake, according to an article in The Times.
The Paseo Grande fire "had a fury to it," Anderson recalled.
Firefighters and sheriff's deputies evacuated hundreds from their homes as the fire marched toward several rural communities.
Anderson's parents loaded the family car and then pulled him and his brothers and sisters from bed at 2 a.m. as they fled, he said. After spending a night at an evacuation center in Tustin, he returned to his neighborhood and found his home was not damaged.
Alayne Campbell and her family were not so lucky. Their three-story, Spanish-style home on Mesa Drive was one of 17 destroyed in Villa Park. Campbell said her family did not worry about the threat of fire because of the home's stucco and tile construction. When they evacuated, they took very little, thinking they would soon return.
But a tree, ignited by burning embers carried in the gusting winds, fell through a top-story window and torched the wood interior, said Campbell, who was 35 years old at the time.
"We were just lucky that no one stayed in the home," she said.
As she fled her Villa Park home, Campbell recalled: "You could see the smoke."
"I could see all the hills in flames--this whole wall of flame," said the recently retired high school teacher.
A dozen firefighters and five people were injured as they fought the fire until Nov. 2, according to the Orange County Fire Department. One woman was killed by a runaway vehicle during the fire, county fire officials said.
More than 50 cattle, horses and sheep perished.
Fire departments today enjoy technological advantages over those of a generation ago, such as firefighting foam, better communications and organization systems at major incidents. But fire officials say their preparation and warnings can only do so much.
"People think we're all well protected," Cha said. "But it's a partnership. We don't do everything. There's still a lot the community has to do to make sure (prevention) will work."
Some of the older homes in the areas that burned still have wood shake roofs, which aided the spread of the Paseo Grade fire, Anderson said. Many homes also have ornamental vegetation or tall trees that could catch fire, he said.
County fire officials urge homeowners to remove dry growth within 100 feet of the home and keep plants and trees from power lines.
"We are in a desert ecosystem, you've got to remember that," Anderson said. Orange County "is just a bad day away" from another devastating fire, like Oakland last year or Santa Barbara in 1990, he said.
Other Big Burns
June 27, 1990: Carbon Canyon fire burned the hills near Brea. The fire destroyed six homes in San Bernardino County and charred 3,500 acres.
July 3, 1986: More than 250 people were evacuated from the Casa de Valencia apartments in Anaheim. Ninety-four apartments were damaged and 40 gutted by the blaze.
Oct. 9, 1982: Gypsum Canyon fire caused $16 million in damage and destroyed 14 homes spread out over 17,000 acres. Seventy-two nearby homes were also damaged.
April 21, 1982: Anaheim fire destroyed 525 apartments in 50 buildings, leaving more than 1,000 people homeless. The fire caused $50 million in damage.
Source: Orange County Fire Department