A lifeguard tower at the famed Wedge surf spot in Newport Beach burned early Thursday.
The simple elevated wooden structure with the letter "W" on its outer walls was a well-known sight and served as a lookout for lifeguards scanning the Wedge's famously outsized waves. But about two hours before daybreak, the tower burned — its walls destroyed, its platforms and ladder charred and the sand in its shadow blackened.
Firefighters found the tower engulfed in flames at about 3:40 a.m.
A few hours later, city workers demolished the remains and hauled them away, except for one beam that is carved with the names of six surfers who died in Newport waters. The memorial beam, the names still legible, is now at the lifeguard headquarters on the Newport Pier.
A camera fixed on the beach to stream live video to the surf forecasting site Surfline.com caught the moment of ignition. Grainy video shows intense flashes of light as flames consume the walls.
Police and Fire Department investigations of the blaze are continuing.
Chief lifeguard Mike Halphide said the structure was built in 2005, had been at other spots on the beach previously and was near the end of its life. Lifeguard towers get damaged, including by fire, and the high-profile Wedge tower tended to get more graffiti and wear and tear, he said. But Halphide said he hadn't seen this level of damage to a tower in about 15 years.
He said lifeguards and other city staff members are trying to find a way to compensate for the tower's loss in time for the weekend, the first of the summer.
The city has a spare tower near the Santa Ana River jetty but it might be too rickety to make the trip to the other end of the Balboa Peninsula, Halphide said. He's also considering moving the next closest tower — Tower P, about 250 yards away — and have guards on foot cover the gap.
"It's an important area for us," he said. "We'll just figure out how to adapt and best serve the public."
Halphide said the city may reinstall the memorial beam or repurpose it "in a way that respects and honors the watermen whose names are engraved on it."
Wedge landmarks have been through a rough patch recently. In 2017, winter storms felled three of four wind-bent myoporum trees that leaned over the path to the beach. Replacement saplings lasted a day before being stolen.