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He worked, watching his hometown burn

My memories of the Laguna firestorm of 1993 are still vivid, 20 years later.

I photographed the day of the burn, weeks of clean-up and the feature stories that followed. It was a distinctive career experience for me as a photographer, covering my hometown on fire. It could have been anywhere in Orange County, but it was my hometown.

It's one thing to see big fires burn other people's homes, but when they belong to your neighbors and friends, it was something else.

I learned about the fire from a scanner report of a 2-acre brush fire near Laguna Canyon Road and the 405 Freeway a little before noon on Oct. 27. I was on assignment for the Laguna News Post shooting a business portrait. I quickly did the portrait and left.

I photographed the firestorm on several fronts over 15 hours, starting at about 12:30 p.m. I chased the head of the flames from its march from Laguna Canyon Road to its end in Emerald Bay, to its second front on lower Skyline and, lastly, upper Temple Hills.

I was allowed to drive up the closed Laguna Canyon Road with the help of my press credentials but could go no farther than El Toro Road. It was clear the fire was out of control from there.

With no vehicle traffic, you could easily hear the crackling of burning brush and you could feel the heat from a wide fire line.

It was there that I took one of my favorite photos, of two firemen and their lone engine trying to decide what to do. There was nothing they could do.

When a dispatcher from the Laguna Beach Police Department announced homes were on fire in Emerald Bay, I immediately drove there with another photographer and walked in as a car came out — a practiced move we used on bikes to get into the beach of the gated community when we were in high school.

In Emerald Bay there was panic and uncertainty. The winds were much stronger there.

It was a full firefight and residents and neighbors were evacuating to Coast Highway. Super-heated air was torching homes on the upper streets. As soon as I began to run up, I was ordered back and told to stop by an overzealous highway patrolman who was working the gated community.

He yelled from his car megaphone at me and a fellow photographer, "You guys can't go up there. Stop right there." We ignored him. He then sped up to just behind us, jumped from his car and ordered us to stop as my comrade ran for it between two houses. Being closer, I stopped. I didn't want to get arrested and miss this story sitting in the back of a cop car, so I complied and rode with him down the hill to Coast Highway.

He ordered me to sit on the curb next to his car, which was at the south entrance to Emerald Bay, at a mini-command post. I could see smoke billowing overhead and people started covering their faces with shirts and scarves for the first time. The fire was well into the neighborhood.

Like I said, I didn't want to get arrested but I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. When he was distracted by a group of neighbors, I quickly walked off then ran up the street, made a left on another street and cut through a few houses to where I was before. Being a local had its advantages. I heard a siren and never looked back.

I had a feeling I'd get caught again but saw a man hosing down a roof. He'd climbed the tree in the front yard to get up to the roof. I did the same and said something like, "Hello, I'm gonna take pictures of you watering the roof." He was happy for the company and said he was from Chicago. When the cop made it up to the street, he yelled up to the guy to ask if he'd seen me. He said no, and on the cop went. I assumed he had bigger issues.

It was from this roof that I first saw the scope of the fire. Before now, you couldn't see which homes were burning. Now you could see huge homes engulfed by flames sending embers into the sky and onto the neighborhood below. Any home in the path that had brush in the backyard was burning.

When the wind gusted, hard nugget-like embers the size of foam packing peanuts would follow. It was a guessing game as to which home would ignite from these deadly hot projectiles.

People were pulling garden hoses with little pressure to whichever roof they thought would be next. With the blinding smoke it was hard to even look up. By now I was getting low on color slide film, my scanner battery had died, and the gusty winds began to subside.

It was time to leave. I climbed down the tree and walked down to where others were regrouping on Coast Highway regrouping — where I was earlier detained. There was no one there this time.

Just then, I got a page for all O.C. Register photographers to drop off film at a rally point, the Chevron Station in downtown Laguna. Technically I wasn't a Register shooter; I worked for the News Post, but we did share content with them and I did not want to miss the opportunity to get published, so I decided to throw my film into the hat.

A guy on a motorcycle took our labeled film and he actually gave me a few more rolls of color slide film. To this day I have no idea who he was.

I could see the hills burning up behind Skyline Drive. From where I was, it looked like the fire was coming right into town. I wanted to keep shooting, so I walked up Park Avenue and up to Manzanita Drive, and onto lower Skyline Drive to see if flames had reached there. It was more than I'd bargained for. You couldn't see the fire line but you could see the smoke and glow from fire behind the homes.

Lower Skyline was eerily abandoned. No firefighters, police or anyone waiting for the march of flames. No one. I did see a garden hose someone put over a wall and left running. I learned later the area had already been evacuated. The wind started to gust again, high and low. It came from the hills and the ocean.

Some guys with scarves on their faces showed up behind me on the street. We all were wondering what to do, as we knew some homes would catch fire here. Was there anything we could do? The guys had pulled several garden hoses between homes but it was futile. The wind was killing us.

Twice we were forced as a group down to the intersection of Manzanita and Skyline, but then ran up between gaps in the smoke clouds, hoping to find garden hoses next to any home that could catch fire. It was such a helpless feeling. The neighborhood was being overrun. You could feel the hot winds pre-heating the neighborhood. It was time to go.

Spot fires were sprouting up in front yards and in the trees, shooting sparks everywhere. Seeing the edges of rooftops ignite on the way down was so frustrating. It was sad to know these homes would be lost and there was nothing we could do.

When it became too much to bear, we retreated with our shirts over our faces back to Park Avenue. Just then, Orange County Engine 3 from Sunset Beach honked from around the corner. We had high hopes, and I thought all was not lost.

I was exhausted and dying of thirst. I managed a few shots of them getting into place and trying to find the hydrant as the driveway of the home they just backed into erupted in flames. It lit up like a blowtorch over their heads. I had no protective gear on so it was impossible to stay. This is where I learned that if I wanted to get close in situations like this I would have to be better be prepared.

I retreated down Park Avenue to breathe again, and I parted ways with the men in scarves. I never got their names and never saw them again. Tired and now out of film, I walked to where I was living, near Bluebird Park.

When I got home I learned the story was all over local and national news. I couldn't stay in, so I collected any type of film I could find in my house — from old 1600 color neg film to weird bulk rolled black and white films, I gathered it all. I could tell from the wind and the weather that the immediate threat was over and the fire would not jump into another canyon during the night, like into Bluebird Canyon where my folks lived.

That night I visited many locations and talked with people who had stayed in town or somehow sneaked into it as we stood on Skyline watching a few homes burning.

It was about 2 a.m. when I started to wonder what the morning would bring. I was perched on a ridge with firefighters, all of us waiting for these last big flames to arrive. It was the first time I'd reflected on the day and looked at the landscape below in the darkness.

It was rows and rows of what looked like fireflies perched in place. It was the gas flames from homes that weren't there. They were exposed in rows in the darkness. Only then I did I realize that the upper Skyline neighborhood was gone. I had several friends who lived there.

Did they know? Were the houses really gone? It was silly to think a whole neighborhood was wiped out, but I could see it with my own eyes.

I stood chatting with a lone firefighter manning a spot where a flame would encroach up the steep ridge. He was there to keep watch when it arrived.

A few yards away, firefighters who seemed to be sleepwalking before now came to life. They lifted a huge line under pressure over their heads, passing it along to the lead guys, and blasted a ball of fire coming up the ridge into submission, and it would end there. The fire would not jump the canyon and the firestorms of 1993 were finally over. It was a day of work I'll never forget and I've never had a day like it since.

Sunrise would come and reveal the damage. Neighborhoods were gone. For some reason I went to the end of Mystic View. I parked and walked up to a house where the night before I heard a big boom. A gas tank had blown up.

A woman stood below the now-burned-down home surrounded by brick walls.

"This is all that's left — a three iron," she said.

She walked around using it like a cane, looking into her home now reduced to rubble while looking through metal gates surrounded by high brick walls.

It's gonna be another long day, she said as the sun began to rise and more and more residents began to creep back into the burned-out neighborhoods.

Laguna Beach resident DON LEACH is photo editor of the Daily Pilot.

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