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Orange County / THE 1993 LAGUNA BEACH FIRE

Recalling the Day No Home Was Safe

For those who lived in Mystic Hills, the shock of ruin is seared into memory.

October 26, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The fire advanced at a ferocious pace, growing as it devoured the trees and shrubs of Laguna Canyon. It seemed that nothing would stop it short of the ocean itself.

Orange County had never encountered such a wildfire, exploding with fireballs and cloaking Laguna Beach in a sickening, hot cloud of ash and embers. Residents, awestruck by the sight, rushed home from work and from errands with their minds racing: Where is the family? Will a garden hose embolden us to stay? No, we've got to go. But where? How much time do we have? Clothes. Scrapbooks. Old income-tax returns. Mom's jewelry. The oil paintings. Business files.

For too many, the memories are as fresh today as they were 10 years ago when fires ripped across Southern California but saved most of their wrath for Laguna Beach.

The blaze started, most likely by an arsonist, in Laguna Canyon between El Toro Road and the San Diego Freeway, just before noon on a Wednesday.

More than 300 firetrucks swarmed to Laguna. But it was a change in the weather that ultimately subdued the monster.

Entire neighborhoods -- 347 homes in all -- were destroyed: mobile homes at El Morro, million-dollar estates in Emerald Bay, rustic cottages in Canyon Acres and tract homes in the unpretentious, 30-year-old neighborhood of Mystic Hills.

In that subdivision of curving, romantically named streets and handsome ranch homes, the toll was stark. Sixteen of the 24 homes on Tahiti Avenue were destroyed. On Caribbean Way, 18 of the 19 homes were gone. On Skyline Drive, only one of the 47 homes survived.

All in about 45 minutes.

No one died in the fire. But as if reacting to death, homeowners dealt with their loss with denial, anger and, in time, acceptance.

Some took their insurance money and left, selling their lots to affluent newcomers who erected Mediterranean-like villas and sleek, modern mansions that -- for better or worse -- changed the flavor of the neighborhood. Others stayed, took stock and rebuilt. Some of the new homes are much bigger. Others are similar to those that were lost.

In the months after the fire, neighbors said they bonded as never before, supporting one another through the trauma of lives upended. Then, over time, a sense of normalcy -- even suburban anonymity -- returned and lives found their routine.

Following are the stories of a few Mystic Hills residents whose lives changed on Oct. 27, 1993.

*

Bob and Nancy West, Coral Drive

They were flying home from a three-week vacation in Italy. Approaching Los Angeles International Airport, they could see ominous plumes of smoke, the line of orange flames.

Maybe Camp Pendleton was on fire, they thought.

Once in their car, they learned the fire was in Laguna Beach. Their stomachs tightened; the drive home seemed interminable. As they pulled into town, the plumes were towering over them, turning day into a menacing dusk. They headed for Park Avenue and their Mystic Hills neighborhood. But they were turned back by a police roadblock and booked a room at Hotel Laguna.

They hunkered in front of a television set, waiting for news of what was unfolding in their hillside neighborhood just about a mile away.

The TV showed their neighborhood, the camera panning up the block. Three houses on their street were OK.

"We felt great," Bob West said.

"And then they kept on going and they hit our lot and we could see everything was gone.

"All we could see was the chimney," Nancy West said.

Today, 10 years later, they'd rather not talk about it.

"We don't want to go back there," Nancy said of the memories.

"We lost a lot of personal effects," said Bob, an artist. "Photographs, pictures I brought back from my mother's place in Pennsylvania that had been hanging on my grandfather's living room wall. Things that you can never replace."

Lost too were about 300 of his own oil paintings, mostly landscapes. He wouldn't take up painting again for several years. "I just wasn't in the mood," he said.

The Wests had bought their 2,000-square-foot tract home in 1964 and decided to rebuild on the same lot. Laguna, they said, was too important to abandon, but starting over was bittersweet.

"You know how excited people are when you're building a new house?" Nancy asks. "Well, we had to. We would have been perfectly satisfied with what we had."

Their new house is a bit larger. More modern and brighter, with walls of windows opening onto the ocean.

And this house has an art studio.

*

Eivor and Jerry Cohen, Skyline Drive

Jerry Cohen had been playing tennis at a municipal court in the nearby Top of the World neighborhood, and Eivor, baking banana bread, had run to the grocery store, only barely aware that a fire had begun burning five miles away.

Leaving the store with her groceries, Eivor Cohen realized the situation was more ominous and rushed home. Jerry left the tennis court for home too.

Sooner than they could have imagined, the fire was almost upon them.

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