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A battered Seal Beach icon burns — yet again

In Seal Beach, residents gather on the pier to sip coffee, watch the surfers, gossip, fish and amble in the sea breeze.

On Friday, in a steady south wind, they gathered to watch it burn over a choppy gray sea.

An abandoned diner at the end of the pier caught fire around 7:45 a.m. Fire boats from Long Beach, the port of Los Angeles and Orange County raced to douse the flames with high-powered salt water hoses. Orange County fire crews attacked it from land.

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The fire destroyed the old Ruby’s Diner and a bait shack, but firefighters kept the rest of the 610-yard wood pier from igniting.

Fani Afemata, 51, pulled into the parking lot by the Seal Beach Pier, ready to go bodyboarding as he has for over 40 years, even when the surf is bad.

It gave him a pang of sadness to see it burning.

He knows the pier intimately. Last year, bodyboarding on the south side of it, with a current running north, he took a wave a little too close to the pilings and got slammed into one of the mussel-crusted posts, causing him to lose consciousness for a second. “That hurt,” he said.

On Friday, like dozens of other residents, he stood gazing at the black smoke and wondered how it started.

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There was plenty of speculation running wild through the small beach town Friday, but firefighters had just begun investigating the cause.

Afemata saw it as part of the pier’s life cycle, whatever the reason. He had seen it burn before, in 1992 and 1994. And he had watched huge waves tear it apart in 1983 – before he paddled out and rode them.

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“Those were some of the best rides we had out here, that year,” he said.

In 1935, a 40-foot section of the pier collapsed on a busy July day, leaving 20 people stranded. Three years later, the pier had to be torn down and replaced. A Times article at the time described its “few remaining legs twisted and bent like those of a rheumatic old man.”

Jessica Buck, 37, came down Friday to push her 3-month-old daughter in her stroller along the pier’s planks. “She loves it,” she said. “She falls asleep.”

“There’s something nostalgic about it,” she said. “Especially because Seal Beach just had its centennial.”

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Deanna McDermott, 53, stood on the sand and called her daughter to tell her the news about the restaurant. “You mean the place we used to get shakes?” her daughter asked.

The Ruby’s closed in 2013 after 25 years in business.

“It’s such an icon,” McDermott said. “It’s still sad, even though it’s been closed for three years.”

Lauren Allen, a resident since 1983, hopes this might prompt the city to rebuild and reinforce the structure, noting that the end of the pier was already closed off because of damage caused by hurricane-generated waves in August.

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“It’s pretty rickety.”

On Thursday, she and her husband took a stroll on the concrete pier in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach.

“We were thinking, we need to do it right, like this.”

For now, it’s not clear when the pier will reopen.

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“Pier inspectors will look at the integrity of the wood and determine what repairs need to be made in order for it to be safe to the public again,” said Orange County fire Capt. Larry Kurtz.

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