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For Stymied Fire Investigators, an Unhappy Anniversary : Arson: Their elation from a suspect's recent confession in long-stalled Laguna case turned back into depression when it was proven false. Now they're back to 'square one.'

October 27, 1994|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — When arson investigators talk about "the great fire," the one that damaged or destroyed 441 structures and caused $528 million in damage, they use words like frustrated, bewildered, depressed. For the case is back where it started:

"Square one," said Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young.

The last month has given investigators their highest highs and lowest lows since the fire broke out last Oct. 27, scorching a four-mile area in little over an hour, its 200-foot flames consuming four homes and 45 acres a minute, jamming Coast Highway with five lanes of evacuees.

"Five law-enforcement agencies moved out 27,000 people--the entire population of Laguna Beach and 2,500 people from surrounding areas," Young said. "They created those five lanes of traffic. We look back and say: It could have been so much worse than it was."

Despite the horror of watching it burn, and anger at not knowing who caused it, investigators remember the fire with a strange sense of relief. Never in their experience have they seen a fire so devastating that traveled at such a frightening pace--and still failed to claim a single fatality. Even its few injuries were limited to firefighters.

The sense of lingering futility comes, Young said, in not knowing who caused the fire--of having little to go on a whole year later.

Last month saw the arrest of Jose Soto Martinez, a 26-year-old transient who led investigators to the fire's point of origin and appeared to tell them exactly how it started.

Martinez was later furnished a solid alibi when his mother, who lives in Fullerton, presented tangible proof that he was in a Mexican prison on the day the fire started and had no possible way of playing a part in it.

"We're rapidly getting back to where we were before (Martinez) confessed to the fire," Chief Dan Runnestrand of the Orange County Fire Department said with a sigh. "We've exhausted all the leads that we've had, more than 1,000, and know no more than we did to begin with: It was an incendiary fire, caused by somebody, who used an open-flame device such as a lighter or a match."

Runnestrand said Martinez has since told investigators that he merely "guessed" about the fire's location and how it started. Runnestrand called Martinez's knowledge of the fire "uncanny" but said, "At this point, we don't really know what he knows--whether he knew someone who caused it, or was, as he said, just guessing."

The fire began at 11:50 a.m., just west of Laguna Canyon Road. It started northwest of the thoroughfare, a mile and a half south of the San Diego Freeway. Traveling four miles in one hour, 23 minutes, it first claimed homes in elite Emerald Bay.

At 3:55 p.m., the skyscraper-like flames jumped Laguna Canyon Road and crested at the far north end of Park Road, invading the pristine Laguna Beach communities of Canyon Acres, Mystic Hills and Tahiti Skyline.

It was between 3:55 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. that the fire reached its astonishing pace of consuming four homes and 45 acres a minute, investigators said.

"I'm not aware that that kind of pace or drive has ever been recorded in fire behavior anywhere," Young said.

The worst possible conditions conspired to create an almost inevitable scenario for such a tragedy: 80-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds, which occur no more than once a decade, Young said; 7% humidity; and 4% fuel moisture in the vast acreage of parched brush surrounding Laguna Beach.

Young called the brittle dryness of the brush the most "critical, explosive" factor in fueling the firestorm's spread. He blamed the "tinderbox" condition of the landscape for much of the destruction and faulted residents and local governments for failing to manage the growth more responsibly.

"The same things that made those communities quaint and charming and wonderfully beautiful and wilderness-like also made them absolute fire hazards and disasters waiting to happen," Young said. "Today, there are still 50 communities just like that in Orange County and 1,000 more throughout Southern California."

But based on the experience of the Laguna Beach fire, Young said, communities are now more receptive to controlled burns.

"In the old days in Laguna Beach, we used to hear people tell us, 'We don't want your controlled burns, because we don't want ashes on our nice houses and cars.' Well, today, many of those same people no longer have those houses and cars.

"Needless to say, we're meeting with much less resistance. But had we had regular controlled burns in the past, we might have been able to prevent it. All we can do now is learn from it."

Celebrating a Rebirth

Several community events are scheduled today through the weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the Laguna Beach fire. All ceremonies and events are free and in Laguna Beach.

TODAY

* Dedication ceremony: Memorial service, music, candlelight vigil and program honoring police and fire departments; 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Main Beach Park. Doves will be released at 6 p.m.

FRIDAY

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