It is a tale of two exclusive neighborhoods--Irvine Cove Crest and Emerald Bay, next door.
Though a two-mile front of leaping flame rapidly descended on both communities in the first hours of the Laguna Beach fire, they did not share identical fates. Irvine Cove emerged unscathed while 60 homes in Emerald Bay burned to the ground.
In contrast to its neighbor, Irvine Cove Crest, a gated enclave of about 50 luxury homes on the inland side of Coast Highway, represents the state of the art in preventive measures and construction techniques that minimize the risk of living in a fire-prone area.
Surrounding the tract of custom homes is a fuel break, a swath of open space that acts like a firebreak isolating the homes from the adjacent chaparral of Crystal Cove State Park. Houses are widely spaced here and sit on terraced lots, not steep terrain that is difficult for firefighters to scale.
Flame-resistant building materials have been used in virtually every home. Except for a few dwellings, roofs are slate, tile, rock or concrete. Walls are stucco or heavy masonry. Very little wood has been used except for trim and eaves.
Homeowners have installed irrigation systems as well, including some who have added auxiliary pumps to get water out of their swimming pools in case of an emergency. The landscaping is well maintained, and there is no overgrowth from the hills above.
"Emerald Bay is a much older community. Irvine Cove has the newer construction--not as much wood and the roofs are made of non-combustible material. All of this can make a tremendous difference," said Emmy Day, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department.
Last Wednesday, a wall of flame moved 10 miles from Laguna Canyon in about an hour before it roared down Emerald Canyon and the adjacent hillsides above the Pacific Ocean. At that point, firefighters said, the line of fire was almost two miles wide.
At Emerald Bay, the inferno jumped a firebreak and moved into the narrow streets of older homes, showering burning embers on the area, including houses on the ocean side of Coast Highway. When the flames breached the 50-foot firebreak, some estimate the blaze was reaching speeds up to 20 m.p.h.
"When the fire came over the cliffs, it sounded like a jet taking off. We dropped everything and ran for our lives," said William R. McCrea, general manager of the Emerald Bay Community Assn. "It almost overtook us. I felt the heat on the back of my neck."
The fiery onslaught--which authorities said was difficult to fight because of a lack of water--destroyed 60 homes, many worth at least $1 million. An additional 20 to 30 homes sustained minor damage. The "Old Hill" area, a section built in the 1930s, was devastated, as were some newer sections developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Most are custom homes built by independent contractors.
Emerald Bay contains about 500 homes, including those on the ocean side of Coast Highway. There are about 100 dwellings in all of Irvine Cove, half of them in the Crest section.
Most of the houses destroyed by fire, McCrea said, were older structures with shake shingle roofs or wood siding, or more modern homes next door to homes with older types of construction. Also contributing were the small lot sizes, he said, and steep hillsides covered with thick brush.
Though Emerald Canyon acted as a wind tunnel for the fire as it came down into the neighborhood, worsening the impact, McCrea said the type of construction found in Emerald Bay contributed substantially to the tragedy.
"Definitely, it was a factor," he said. "The embers would hit these 25-year-old roofs, and they would just explode in flame. . . . I thought this place was going to burn to the ocean from the way it looked."
Compounding the fire risk was the surrounding brush on the steep hillsides in and around the community, a potentially dangerous condition found in other parts of Laguna Beach.
"You had fire-loading underneath homes on the canyons because of the vegetation," said state Fire Marshal Ronny Coleman, who monitored the firefighting effort. "It was like trying to put out a fire while sitting on top of a fireplace."
As the fire savaged Emerald Bay, the front of flame headed west toward Irvine Cove Crest, next door. It spread along the fuel break separating the homes from the hillside vegetation. At the west end of the tract, the fire headed toward El Morro Mobile Home Park and crossed Coast Highway, where it went on to blacken Abalone Hill.
No Irvine Cove Crest homes were destroyed. Some sustained cosmetic damage from the dense smoke, and a parcel of open space within the tract burned when the fire jumped the fuel break.
"No doubt about it. Obviously, the planning was good here," said Joel Cooper, president of Gotcha sportswear, who lives in the development. "The fire came close to everyone here. But it just stopped all around Irvine Cove."
Matthew R. Alcone, who fought to get the community's fuel break cleared a few months ago after the brush built up, said the firebreak helped spare the neighborhood.
"During a frantic call to my brother while flying back from New York, he told me that the flames literally were at the back of the house," said Alcone, whose Mediterranean-style home has 8,000 square feet.
When Irvine Cove Crest was first developed by the Irvine Co. in the mid-1980s, the company's planners sought the fuel break and devised other fire safety requirements for homes to be built there.
Those requirements included irrigation systems for landscaping, requirements to thin surrounding vegetation and the use of non-combustible building materials, such as fire-resistant roofing and stucco walls.
"All of these things come together to create a fire-safe environment," said Bernard Maniscalco, the Irvine Co.'s vice president of land development, who worked on Irvine Cove Crest.
Similar techniques, Maniscalco said, were used for the Newport Coast development, north of Irvine Cove, where 150-foot-wide fuel break areas have been credited with keeping the fire away from the Irvine Co.'s newest housing tracts.
Over the width of the Newport Coast fuel break the vegetation is thinned until it is almost devoid of brush. Banks leading up to the houses are covered with ice plant. The idea, Maniscalco said, is to reduce the heat of the flames so fire crews can put themselves between the fire and the homes.
Norman K. Dolby, president of the Emerald Bay Community Assn., said some of these methods were on the agenda for discussion Tuesday night at the regular meeting of the association's board of directors.
Seven years ago, the organization started requiring fire-resistant roofing for all new construction and roof replacements. Now, McCrea said, the board of directors is considering increasing the safety requirements before rebuilding begins.
"Naturally, we are going to push for more stucco, tile and fireproof materials," he said. "I'm sure we will talk about irrigation, sprinklers and flame-resistant landscaping."