The Great Laguna Beach California fire of 1993 in pictures, and our personal story of fear and panic.
The Great Laguna Beach Fire of 1993

Steve Turnbull ©2001

366 beautiful homes, and 17,000 acres of Laguna Beach burned in one day of fear, panic, bravery and tears. Many stories from this disaster are far more sad and harrowing then ours, but hopefully this small personal snapshot of the exact moment fear and dread arrived for Karen and I will give you a feeling of what our entire town felt on that frightening and sad day.


October 27, 1993 - 11:30am

My wife Karen and I were driving back from Oceanside with a truck full of old barn wood we had planned to use to build our booths at the Sawdust Art Festival. It was during strong Santana wind conditions, when hot, dry desert winds whip down out of the Mojave desert at speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour. I mentioned to Karen that I thought today was the most dangerous fire condition I had ever seen....It was so dry my skin was crackling, and the wind was buffeting our fully loaded vehicle so violently, I pulled over twice to check the load.

The view from Three Arch Bay in the first 1/2 hour

We were passing north through San Clemente when I first noticed the faint wisps of smoke up ahead, seeming to come from the Laguna Beach area. "Fire!" I shouted and pointed. By the time we got to Three Arch Bay, the smoke cloud was filling the northern horizon. It was increasing in size by the minute. I quickly dumped the barn wood off at the house, grabbed the camera, and ran up the hill to take this picture. That's when I first realized how big, and fast growing it was. Fear had not yet arrived...but it would soon.


Bigger then we thought

We jumped back in the car and headed toward Alta Laguna Park up on top of Temple Hills, thinking that the fire was way out by El Toro Road and Laguna Canyon, on the hills on the north side of the Canyon, and we would be out of the way and safe at the park. When we arrived others were just beginning to arrive also. There was no sense of immediate danger yet, just awe at the ferocity of the wind, and the size of the conflagration before us. It was running along the tops of the hills at an incredible speed ...faster then anyone would be able to run away from it.

 

This was not good

We were becoming very uneasy looking at the power of the monster before us. The 70 mph winds were pushing the fire nearly horizontally along the tops of the hills across the Laguna Canyon, snarling and crackling with a tremendous roar. Blowing embers were starting fires in front of the main fire, leaping ahead by the length of a football field, while the terrifying beast raced up from behind with a 200 foot high wall of flame. We could feel the heat clear across Laguna Canyon, nearly a mile away. And it was just getting started!

This was not good...not good at all

I quickly took a few pictures, then thought I'd take a shot of Karen standing in front of the fire. As I focused the camera, Karen suddenly turned toward me with a fearful look on her face and said softly, but with an odd urgency in her voice...

"Steve, The kids are at school."

I snapped the shutter, but for a second I didn't get the full import of what she had just said. Then my stomach dropped away in free fall as it dawned on me what she meant.

A sudden realizationOur two young children, Kelly and Tim, were at El Morro Elementary School, six miles away, directly in the path of the fire that was now headed their way like an angry express train!

Without a further word, in a grim panic we quickly started running toward the car. We needed to go get them! This was not a lazy burning, natural brush fire. It was a full-blown nuclear bomb of a disaster. We were now in a race for our kids with a hungry killer, and it had a head start! Others must have had similar thoughts too as I saw a few others running back to their cars.

Heading back down Park Avenue, I could only pound the steering wheel for being so stupid! Even today, I still feel foolish for not having realized the obvious danger the kids were in sooner. I knew we would never make it in time, but hopefully the school would be evacuated across the Coast Highway to the beach where they could escape the inferno. I prayed I was right.

At the bottom of the hill, near the High School, traffic came to a stop in the tangled snarl of cars pouring down out of the hills. We were all trapped. Panic and frustration were in the eyes of all around us. People began pulling over and parking, getting out and running down toward the school. We recognized a familiar face running by, a mother of another child at El Morro. She yelled out to us, "The kids are at the High School!" Karen jumped out of the car and began running to the school while I pulled off onto a side street and quickly parked. I headed to the school to join her.

 

Busses at El Morro - OC RegisterWe found Kelly and Tim safe and calm in the Laguna High School gym, playing games in class groups that the teachers had organized. We then learned that when the school administrators saw the very first column of smoke rising above the hills behind El Morro school, six miles away, they made an instant, brilliant decision to call the bus company in Santa Ana to have the busses leave immediately for an emergency evacuation of the kids to Laguna Beach High School.

The fire was less then a mile away and heading at high speed toward the exposed school when the busses arrived. The teachers organized the frightened kids into the busses and the drivers speed away from the school just as the fire began entering the El Morro trailer park right next to the school, destroying over 60 homes in a hellish firestorm of exploding propane tanks, burning cars and swirling fire tornados. The aerial fire tankers were just arriving also and began Borate bombing all around the school, luckily saving the structure.

 

The monster advances on Laguna

Now behind and above us, the fire had turned south and had jumped the Canyon, burning where we had been standing only a few minutes before. It was quickly burning down into town and toward the high school, so the high school was now ordered evacuated too! The children were again being loaded into the busses to be taken eight miles south to Dana Point high school.

We gathered up our kids, quickly got them in the car, and began heading home. I stopped the car down near the Coast Highway and took one last picture behind us (above) before heading south back to Three Arch Bay. At home we began packing and preparing for the worse, but thankfully the worse never came for us.

 

Marks House - Canyon Acres

But for others, the worst did come. Many of my artist friends lived in a lush side valley of Laguna Canyon called Canyon Acres. The blaze stormed through in minutes, without mercy. Here was the home and kiln of potter Mark Blumenfeld. He said his house "just exploded in thirty seconds". His kiln operated daily at 2,500 degrees, yet here you can see that it was completely destroyed, much of it just melted. Even the metal fittings melted. 60 homes were lost in Canyon Acres alone.

 

366 homes and 17,000 acres of coastal growth were destroyed in one day by this firestorm of unimaginable power. Although the fire companies did their best, they were essentially helpless in the face of furious nature. The wall of flames steadily advanced, gobbling up neighborhood after neighborhood, as the violent winds fueled this incandescent monster - and it seemed that nothing man could do would stop it. Nothing...

Map of the fires path

But miraculously, on the afternoon of the second day, the violent Santana winds stopped - they just completely and suddenly stopped. The smoke began going straight up and not sideways, and the rapidly advancing monster slowed down in it's relentless march to the sea. For the first time in this terrifying fight the firemen finally had a small advantage, and at least a fighting chance of whipping the Beast. They regrouped, planned an assault with everything they had, then attacked with a vengeance! The flames were whipped and beaten down within a day.

The firefighters had done what seemed impossible. They had killed the Beast. It was over.



Laguna Canyon aftermath

Mop-up firefighting operations continued for weeks as the weary firemen smothered every last ember in the remote canyons surrounding Laguna Beach. Our entire town had been evacuated - 25,000 people - and now we could return to our scarred, yet still beautiful village. Sadly, many had no house waiting for them upon return.

While it was a time of tears and great shock at our loss, it was also a time of thankfulness and gratitude for the firefighting crews who had fought so desperately for us all, and a time of compassion and caring for our neighbors, our children and ourselves. The entire town - in a way rarely seen nowadays - pitched in to help each other in any way we could. This was the only way we knew how to heal ourselves.

Fire Crews on Ocean Avenue

State Officials flock to gawk and squawk

Many changes in our local laws and way of life occurred because of this disaster - new fire abatement rules, brush clearing, water tanks, etc. There were huge debates and heated finger-pointing sessions at City Hall for months afterwards, but we all agreed that this just could not be allowed to happen again. Changes had to be made, some of them painful.

But the one change that nearly everyone welcomed were the herds of cute goats that were brought in to keep the thick brush away from the hillside homes, and lessening the "fuel load". ( Well, not all of us 'welcomed' them, but hey, whatta' ya gonna do? Have everyone think you're a goat-hater in a town chock full of animal lovers? )

Fire Fighters in Three Arch Bay

laguna fire patch

<soapbox>

Today the yearly visit by these cute fire fighting herds to Three Arch Bay is quite an enchanting sight, and although I believe they are far more destructive to our fragile environment then any fire could ever be, if they really do reduce the chance of that monster coming back again, then I can only step aside and shut up. I love the goats too...

But I am still compelled give fair warning here on this web page, that in my opinion, we may have traded one problem for another.

The intense overgrazing and soil destruction - far beyond what is reasonable - is caused by too many goats kept in too small an area for too long a time, and is a calamity in the making.

Prepare for the day when, after a few weeks of heavy El Nino rains, the entire denuded and rocky hillside above Three Arch Bay comes roaring downwards, destroying many homes and possibly killing people....

...Because It is definitely coming.

</soapbox>

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© 1986 - 2010 Steve Turnbull
last updated February 22, 2014