Wind-Driven Canyon Fire Spares Homes

Times Staff Writer

The crackle of unleashed electrical current caught Phil Turgasen’s ear as he worked on his porch Wednesday night, and he turned just in time to see the first flames.

An arc of electricity spanned two power lines above a hill that is just east of Rose Canyon Road. And, as Turgasen and a neighbor watched helplessly, it sparked a brush fire that raced down the slope. The retired mechanic called 911. When he looked again the blaze already had blackened 10 acres, had leaped over his property and ignited another ridge 300 yards to the south.

That was the pattern of the wind-driven blaze that hopscotched through Trabuco Canyon on Wednesday night, consuming about 100 acres in 3 hours before it was contained by firefighters at about 11:30 p.m. Amazingly, the fire spared the nearly 300 canyon residents, their scattered houses and stables, although flames passed close enough to some homes to melt window screens and 80-mile-an-hour gusts kicked over sheds and outhouses.

‘Pretty Well Prepared’


“They tried to evacuate me, and I told them I didn’t think that was a good idea,” Turgasen said Thursday morning as he surveyed the charred peaks around him. “I’ve been up here long enough to be pretty well prepared.”

Still, he admitted, “When you got winds like that, anything can happen. If this had hit a month ago, before we got some rains, they’d have never stopped the damn thing.”

The acrid smell of smoke lingered in the canyon air Thursday morning, as firefighters searched for hot spots and residents surveyed the damage. All counted themselves lucky--aided by heavy December rains, Turgasen’s timely alert and a brush-clearance program that thwarted the spread of the fire.

An estimated 200 firefighters had worked through the night, battling the blaze with water lines and bulldozers, then smothering embers. Orange County firefighters were joined in the effort by strike teams from Orange, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Santa Ana. Residents of at least 50 homes were evacuated as a precautionary measure, but there were no reported injuries or structures burned.

Hurricane-force winds and poor visibility prevented firefighters from using aircraft to drop water on the flames, Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms said. Before it died, the fire claimed a swath of land resembling an inverted exclamation mark, stretching from the east side of Rose Canyon Road, just south of the Joplin Youth Center, south almost to Trabuco Canyon Road.

The flames stopped a few hundred yards short of the Trabuco Oaks Steak House, where half a dozen members of the Chicken Lips Coffee Club gathered Thursday morning to swap stories and toast the survival of the community hangout. Leaning back in barber chairs and jerry-built tractor seats, they spoke of the threat of fire and the serenity of canyon life that makes it worthwhile.

“You accept the danger,” said Gil Leach, who has lived on Mountain View Road in the canyon since 1981. “If you live here for a long time, you have to plan on a fire eventually. You build your house to resist it, and you clear your land of brush. You just have to be prepared.”

Ty Simpson, a Chicken Lips regular, agreed. “We’ve actually been lucky over the last two summers that there wasn’t a fire because it’s been so dry. It’s something you always think about.”

The loose network that binds these neighbors together worked to quickly spread the fire signal Wednesday night. Peter James, who had been helping Turgasen repair wind damage to his porch when the fire started, brewed gallons of coffee for displaced neighbors and weary firefighters through the night. Leach helped in the evacuation of several neighbors, their horses and other animals, after the fire had passed his house.

“It’s the kind of community you can’t get anywhere else,” said James, who has lived in a log house on Rose Canyon Road since 1976. “You know your neighbors, and you help each other.”

Sue Baldwin said a neighbor called to tell her that the blaze was moving toward her house and on Mountain View Road at 8:40 p.m., about 15 minutes after the fire started.

“The first thing I thought was ‘Don’t panic,’ ” she said. “Then I opened my front door and saw the fire right in front of my house--maybe a couple of blocks away.”

Baldwin, a kindergarten teacher, said she grabbed her purse and ran outside to load her horse, donkey and three dogs on a trailer. The racing fire forced her to leave behind 18 cats and more than a dozen ducks and rabbits.

“I saw the fire on the top of the ridge, and then it disappeared,” she said. “One moment later, it came up on the next ridge and toward us fast. Embers were landing on me as I was loading the animals, and the smoke was so bad I was coughing and choking.”

Baldwin, who paused on her way to check on neighbors farther up Rose Canyon Road, compared Wednesday’s blaze to the Indian Canyon fire that raged near Trabuco Canyon for 10 days in 1980. That blaze charred about 29,000 acres in eastern Orange County, much of it in the rugged terrain of the Cleveland National Forest, and caused $2.3 million in damage.

“I had plenty of time to get out 8 years ago--there was at least 3 hours’ notice that the fire was coming our way,” she said. “It burned slowly, and it couldn’t be stopped. This (fire) was jumping. I had maybe 30 minutes.”

Turgasen, who refused to be evacuated Wednesday night, said he also refused to leave during the devastating 1980 fire. Flames then stopped at the ridge immediately east of Rose Canyon Road--the same place where Wednesday’s fire was ignited.

He pointed out the landmarks of past disasters Thursday, then solemnly folded his arms and considered his extraordinary vantage.

“You look to the north and you see the Cleveland National Forest,” he said. “You look to the south and through the mountains, you can see the ocean. Why should I get out?”


Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 1967--Fanned by 50-m.p.h. winds, the Paseo Grande fire scorched 50,000 acres and destroyed 66 homes in the Lemon Heights-Santa Ana Canyon area.

Nov. 28, 1968--Santa Ana winds gusting to 40 m.p.h. flipped over a small plane at the old Orange Airport and felled many trees.

April 4, 1973--Thousands of county homes were without electrical power as winds gusting to 50 m.p.h. ripped wires and created desertlike dust storms.

Feb. 6, 1974--Winds that reached 60 m.p.h. caused widespread damage in the county and toppled an 80-foot pine tree onto a portable classroom at Tustin High School.

Oct. 28-30, 1980--Wind-fanned flames in Owl Canyon raced across 14,873 acres in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Nov. 24, 1980--The Indian-Trabuco Canyon fire, spread by 60-m.p.h. winds, burned 28,000 acres, mostly in Cleveland National Forest.

April 21, 1982--A fire stoked by Santa Ana winds of up to 50 m.p.h. roared through a densely populated Anaheim neighborhood of apartment complexes, destroying $50 million in property. The winds triggered the fire by blowing power lines together, and sparks ignited dry fronds of a palm tree near one of the apartment buildings.

Oct. 9, 1982--Santa Ana winds that reached 60 m.p.h. spread a brush fire in Gypsum Canyon into the exclusive Anaheim Hills-Villa Park area, destroying 14 luxury homes and causing $16 million in damage.

Aug. 11, 1985--Winds spread a brush fire that scorched 1,500 acres in the Carbon Canyon-Telegraph Canyon area.

TRABUCO CANYON 1 Fire Started at 8:22 p.m. Wednesday. 2 Resident saw and called 911. 3 Fire jumped 300 yards. 4 Fire was contained about 11:30 p.m. Fire officials estimated 100 to 120 acres were burned.