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Residents Mark 1st Anniversary of Laguna Fire


LAGUNA BEACH — With the release of 100 white doves symbolizing the community's rebirth, more than 300 people held a candlelight vigil Thursday evening on the anniversary of last year's firestorm.

"The recovery has been a lot of unglamorous, very difficult work," said Mayor Ann Christoph, who presented proclamations to city workers and firefighters for heroism in the face of a "torrid nightmare."

Amid the clamor of sea gulls, speakers including poets, artists, city officials and residents who lost their homes told of personal tragedies and of the city's determination to survive.

The Oct. 27, 1993, fire scorched 14,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 441 homes, including the Canyon Acres home of sculpture David Sabaroff.

At first, Sabaroff told the crowd at Main Beach, "the loss was really too much to take. It hurt a lot. I lost a lot."

But the community offered food, shelter and help, and Sabaroff, 47, stayed to rebuild.

Swinging a bucket filled with metal buttons reading "I Laguna Beach," Sabaroff proclaimed: "I love Laguna Beach. Anyone who wants one of these, come see me."

Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. recalled how ill he felt as he rode in a helicopter above the flames that were consuming his friends' houses and, as far as he knew, his own. When Purcell learned the next day that his home had been spared, he "was absolutely shocked."

Deputy City Manager Cindy King, whose Mystic Hills home burned in the blaze, said she had been too busy Thursday to dwell on the fire or its anniversary. But at some point, she realized she was wearing the same suit she had worn last Oct. 27.

"I don't know if I put it on unconsciously or not," she said.

About 6:15 p.m., following the speakers, participants lit candles in a quiet commemoration. As darkness fell, the crowd began to disperse.

On Sunday, Mystic Hills homeowners will have their own informal commemoration. David Horne, president of the homeowners association, said they do not want to call it a celebration.

"There's no feeling of exuberance," Horne said, "but there was a consensus that we should get together."

Then-Mayor Lida Lenney said the trauma is still there for many people, including herself.

"I had a television crew in town who wanted to interview me," Lenney said. "I really searched my soul and found out I couldn't do that. When I shared that with a school psychologist, I was told the same thing happened at Thurston Elementary School. A TV crew came in and wanted to talk to children who had lost their homes and children who had not. And the ones who had lost their homes did not want to talk on camera."

David Bishop of Laguna Cares, a free counseling service established immediately after the fire, recalled that at first the victims were numb, then joyous that they were alive and their community intact. In the first six months, counselors saw more than 200 clients.

One resident would hear a siren go by while at work and lose concentration for 45 minutes. Another could not pay attention behind the wheel and had to limit her driving, "because her mind would drift," Bishop said.

For many, the anniversary marked the fact that "we've made it through a year, and we can go forward," said Nesse Smith, Laguna Cares' office manager, who spent hours hosing down her own rooftop that frightful day. "We look at this anniversary as a commemoration, but I think a lot of people have made new friends, realized they had friends they didn't know they had, and seen a lot of opportunities open up."

For Marshall and Sharon McNair, who attended the commemoration wearing "Rebirth 1994" T-shirts from the Laguna Fire Relief Coalition, the city has been moving forward.

"I think the goal is to make sure it doesn't happen again," Marshall McNair said, "and you see that with people clearing away brush around their home, using fire-retardant materials for their roof, and the city's trying to get a new water reservoir."

Lenney said she's optimistic that the city can heal.

"I remember being in a restaurant the other day for breakfast," Lenney said. "And there was a group of women speaking animatedly. When they got up to leave, they were in good spirits. One of the women turned around and announced: 'We're going to break ground today!' "

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