Like many other communities, Emerald Bay was beloved for its small-town feel, a place where children could roam free, doors remain unlocked and family values reigned.
But in this pristine patch of Southern California coastline, children play on six private tennis courts, or splash around an exclusive cove where the sand is white and the ocean color matches the jewel for which the community was named.
The nest of 500 homes is usually secure behind a locked gate.
But on Wednesday, 60 of the community's luxury homes--valued from $200,000 to $2 million--were engulfed in flames that leaped across the surrounding fences, licked at the eaves of stately mansions, climbed their walls and collapsed their roofs.
Among the homeowners whose properties were threatened by the inferno was America's richest man: Warren E. Buffett. The Omaha investment scion was crowned king of Forbes magazine's list of the nation's wealthiest earlier this month. Buffett seldom visits the six-room Emerald Bay home he bought in 1971 for $150,000 and which would have commanded 10 times that amount, even in today's depressed real estate market.
But last year, he threw a Christmas party there for a diamond-studded group of guests.
Buffett's neighbors are bright stars on lists of the rich and famous.
Peter V. Ueberroth, the former commissioner of major league baseball, czar of the 1984 Olympic Games, and until recently the leader of RLA, the Los Angeles post-riot reconstruction agency, lives on Emerald Bay. So does Anthony Moiso, president of the Santa Margarita Co.
Donald Doyle, the new president and chief executive officer of Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc., recently bought a home in Emerald Bay after relocating to Orange County from Louisville, Ky. His secretary said Wednesday afternoon that his wife, Roberta, had been evacuated from the house, while Doyle was at his office in Anaheim.
And then there's Buzz Aldrin, the former astronaut who was the second American to walk on the moon in 1969. Wednesday, Aldrin's wife fled their home with whatever she could carry.
"What does it matter? The important thing is you have to take these things as they happen," Lois Aldrin said, carrying a handful of mementos that included her driver's license, but not her credit cards or toothbrush. "I just hope that this fabulous residential area--it is so wonderful--can recover from this."
The private beach is dotted with fire pits, picnic tables, volleyball courts and adorable cabanas. The park is dotted with large sycamore and jacaranda trees. The turf is monitored by a full-time security patrol. The community even has its own fire station, having oft-refused to be incorporated into neighboring Laguna Beach, and relying on its services.
"It's just really sad. It was such a family community, tons of kids and everything. But I think everyone's safe down there," said Kelly Renezeder, who grew up in Emerald Bay and, upon getting married, bought a home near her parents and uncle. "It's a really family-oriented community--kids, dogs, swim team and so forth."
Emerald Bay was first settled by William Miles and his 15-year-old son of the same name who discovered the place during a two-week vacation from Los Angeles in 1906. Before leaving Laguna Beach, Miles paid $26,000 for the 150-acre site surrounding what was then known as Green Bay, according to Elizabeth Quilter's history of Emerald Bay.
Little by little, as the decades passed, vacationers from Los Angeles and Pasadena made the two-day trek down the coast, joining Miles in what seemed like paradise. Buffett's home was built in 1936, Ueberroth's in 1948.
Neither, it seemed, was damaged severely in Wednesday's fire.
During its developing years, the close-knit community was filled with tradition. A New Year's Eve bash at the firehouse. July Fourth fireworks over the ocean. The swim team.
"Everyone knows when he reaches nirvana," one resident reflected in Quilter's history book. "Every member of our family knew it . . . when we first laid eyes on Emerald Bay . . . it was love at first sight."
In 1952, the Bay Breeze, a tiny newspaper, began publication. In 1953, the community closed its doors to Jews and blacks (a policy that was rescinded by the '70s). In 1984, Emerald Bay elected its first female president.
Though idyllic, the community has not been free from conflict or catastrophe.
It was destroyed by fire as early as 1915, according to Quilter. In 1939, a hurricane covered the green with water.
Over and over, residents have refused to release their neighborhood's unincorporated status. In 1960 they promised to build their own sewage treatment plant rather than succumb.
A decade ago, they paraded before the state Coastal Commission demanding that the public remain locked out of their private beach.
Now, many who live in Emerald Bay are staples of the Orange County society scene.
There's Rondell Hanson, president of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra board, who lost his home in the blaze; Dorothy and Donald Bendetti, patrons of the Nixon presidential library, and art collectors Theodore and Suzanne Paulsen.
Then there's Renezeder's parents, developer Jim Baldwin and his wife, Nancy. Living a few doors away are Baldwin's brother, Al, and his wife, Deeann, who are known for hosting charity fund-raisers, such as the one where Dudley Moore's fingers graced the piano at their oceanfront manse.
About 3 p.m. Wednesday, Al Baldwin left his Newport Beach office and raced to Emerald Bay in his 36-foot speedboat, Salt Shaker, to rescue Deeann (who was unharmed, and was able to remain in her home for several more hours). Meanwhile, Nancy Baldwin took refuge at Laguna Beach High and communicated with friends and family via car phone.
Renezeder, nine months' pregnant with her first child, stayed put at the Baldwins' office.
"I'm fine," she said, but her home was threatened.
"We were going to remodel it anyway," Renezeder said of the $300,000 home she and her husband bought recently. "I'm just worried about our golden retriever, Targhe. . . . It's very scary. A lot of our friends lost their houses."
Times staff writers Bill Billiter and Rene Lynch, correspondents Frank Messina and Martin Miller and Times wire services contributed to this story.