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