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Inland Blazes Stir Memories of Laguna's Inferno

Nearly 350 homes were lost a decade ago. Residents are better prepared for disaster.

October 26, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The fires that raked through the Inland Empire on Saturday evoked memories in Laguna Beach, where 10 years ago this week a wildfire sparked by an arsonist destroyed hundreds of homes.

With the fire danger extreme across Southern California, the question on the minds of many in Laguna Beach is: Can it happen again?

This weekend's weather is eerily similar to conditions in 1993 when flames ravaged the scenic canyons and hills of the coastal town, destroying 265 homes in Laguna Beach and 82 more in adjacent Emerald Bay and up the coast at El Morro.

"It is not a question of if" fire will revisit Laguna Beach, said Fire Chief Ken MacLeod. "It is a question of when."

And when it does, officials and homeowners believe, they will be better prepared. Roofs are more fireproof, brush is trimmed regularly and firefighters are better equipped.

Guarding itself against fire didn't come easy for Laguna. In a city proud of its environmental consciousness, many worry that the goats that keep brush trimmed along the city's perimeter are destroying native plants. Some residents also feared that new water tanks would accelerate development.

And when the city proposed stricter building ordinances -- like noncombustible sidings and fire-resistant decks -- to make homes more fire resistant, many homeowners balked.

"They said they didn't want to live in cement bunkers," said John Montgomery, acting director of community development.

Still, with indelible memories of the devastation, the city made changes.

Wood-shake roofs, which gave many neighborhoods a rustic look, are banned on new homes. Shake roofs on previously constructed homes must be replaced by 2017.

Orange County building codes were similarly upgraded after the 1993 fire. The county now requires tile roofs and noncombustible or fire-resistant sidings on all new homes in high fire-risk zones. And it mandates sprinklers on some larger residential structures.

Laguna Beach also recently passed an ordinance mandating sprinklers in all new residential buildings.

Other proposals not adopted by the city were nonetheless followed by many homeowners. For example, noncombustible, fire-resistant stucco has become a popular material in new homes even though it is not required.

Overall, the city has improved its chances of surviving another large fire, officials say.

"You can only spend so much [on fire prevention] and you can't have an unlimited supply of firefighters," said Laguna Beach Battalion Chief Jeff LaTendresse. "But we've made a lot of improvements and we've learned a lot from the [1993] fires."

One of the most glaring lessons was deficiencies in firefighting equipment, LaTendresse said. Shortly after 1993, the Orange County Fire Authority was outfitted with three water-dropping airplanes.

All eight of the Laguna Beach Fire Department's engines are now equipped with fire-retardant foam to coat structures and improve their chance of survival.

One of the trucks, acquired in 1999, is an all-wheel-drive vehicle so firefighters can maneuver in rough terrain.

The city also has widened some hiking trails in the canyons and hills to improve firetruck access to threatened homes.

Many roads are too narrow for firetrucks, which need at least 20 feet of lateral clearance.

The city "was built as a horse-and-buggy town," Montgomery said, "and then they paved the roads over for the Model Ts."

The two new underground water tanks -- one completed in 1996, the other in 2000 -- have boosted water pressure and raised the city's reserve by 8 million gallons, to 33.5 million. Although no amount of water pressure could have stopped the 1993 fires, the feeble hydrantpressure hampered firefighters then, officials say.

The scrub-munching goats have also become a fixture, periodically clearing a buffer of more than 1,000 acres between city and brushland.

In the Mystic Hills neighborhoods, where most of the city's lost homes were located, modern mansions, Mediterranean-style villas and other stuccoed structures have replaced the 1960s tract houses with wooden roofs and siding.

In a recent tour of the resurrected neighborhoods, city building official John Gustafson noted with pleasure that despite initial grumblings, most homeowners followed the city's recommendations.

In addition to noncombustible siding, many homeowners had also stuccoed the undersides of their wooden decks or enclosed them, going beyond what the law requires.

"In the end, it looks like people took the view that [it] is better to be safer," Gustafson said.

In the Canyon Acres area below Mystic Hills, in a rugged neighborhood known as "Old Laguna," many of the burned wooden cottages have been replaced by far less flammable houses.

One belongs to Michael and Margaret Lindsey.

"The fire was a real education," Michael Lindsey said. "When we rebuilt, I really looked at what makes a house more fire-safe."

They've landscaped with more fire-resistant vegetation and regularly clear dried vegetation from around the house.

The new house also has a metal roof and concrete walls, except on one portion where the Lindseys opted for redwood.

Gustafson said that was not advisable.

But Michael Lindsey said he didn't feel that the wood put his home at risk.

Besides, he said, it adds character.

"We wanted to build something that fit in with the canyon's rustic atmosphere."

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