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OUR LAGUNA: Firestorm memories of 1993 still painful

The fire that raged through Southern California this week chilled hearts in Laguna.

It was just six days shy of 14 years ago — on a balmy Oct. 27, 1993 — that the triple threat of high temperatures, low humidity and Santa Ana winds changed forever the landscape of Laguna.

“It’s eerie, and it’s scary,” said Mystic Hills resident Martha Lydick, whose home was among the 366 burned to the ground in 1993.

“Last night I dreamed of being in my storage room downstairs,” Lydick said. “In my dream I saw a woman smoking and I said, ‘Put that out.’ It was the smoke from the Irvine fire that I was smelling.”

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Lydick has rebuilt her home and her life, but like so many others, the memory of that horrendous day is seared in her memory.

She and her late husband, federal Judge Larry Lydick left their home in separate cars, he in their Cadillac. She was driving a vintage Shelby, never meant to creep along at about six miles an hour in stop and go traffic.

“It kept overheating and I had to pull off the road, but no way was I leaving it behind,” Lydick said.

The Lydicks spent that night at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, along with other evacuees.

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“The late Ross Thomas was supposed to be the guest speaker at the annual Friends of the Library Dinner, which was scheduled for a couple of days later, but we had to cancel it because of the fire,” Lydick said.

When Thomas heard about the Lydicks’ plight, he invited them to stay in the guest house at his Malibu home. Two days later, the Thomas home was destroyed by fire.

“Knowing what could happen makes it harder,” Lydick said.

The first I heard about the 1993 fire was a phone call from the editor of the paper I was working for at the time. It was about 11:30 a.m, well past my early Wednesday deadline for the Thursday edition, but the editor figured he could squeeze in a small item about a small fire reported in the canyon.

So I wandered over to the fire department, learned that El Morro Elementary School and a few homes in North Laguna were to be evacuated, “just as a precaution,” and wrote up a little story. Eventually all of the schools were evacuated, and the little story became the biggest news of the year, of the decade and certainly one of the most prominent in Laguna’s history of disasters.

I don’t think anyone in Laguna ever saw the story — I sure didn’t. No papers were delivered that Thursday and there were damn few to whom they could have been delivered.

The town had been evacuated while massive efforts made by valiant firefighters the might before to stop the inferno.

Some stayed. City Manager Ken Frank worked through the night, and it wasn’t until three days later that I learned his home had burned.

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Catharine Cooper and Steve Kawaratani spent the night spraying water on every spark they saw near their Wendt Terrace home until the water pressure dropped. Then they grabbed buckets and emptied the hot tub.

Streets were eerily empty that Thursday morning except for emergency vehicles lined up near Main Beach, where Public Safety Director and then-Police Chief Neil Purcell had set up the command center after the fire chased him from Thurston Middle School.

I remember driving with architect Morris Skenderian up into hills and thinking Hollywood could just come here to film a war movie.

Connie Morthland said it reminded her of London during a World War II blitz by the German Air Force which demolished all the dwellings around St. Paul’s Cathedral, leaving the church still standing.

Skenderian had been evacuated from his home, but his former wife’s home had burned to the ground. He stopped and picked a little statue of a cherub that had survived the holocaust. He took it to give to her.

My heart wept. I don’t ever want to again have to ask people if they still have a home. I hated too many of the answers.

Jeff Powers’ home in Laguna Canyon was gone. City Councilman Bob Gentry lost his residence and a rental property. Laguna Firefighter Ray Sendale’s Canyon Acres home burned down as he fought the fire that had reached into Emerald Bay before jumping back into Laguna Canyon and up into the hills.

Orange County Firefighter John Lane battled a fire near Rancho Santa Margarita that Wednesday and came home Thursday to what remained of the Skyline Drive home he shared with his wife, Barbara.

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Police Capt. Danell Adams family home burned while she was helping residents to safety. In a cruel twist of fate, Adams and her beloved horses were evacuated this week from her San Diego County home.

Heroes emerged in 1993.

Ellen Gordon evacuated six children besides her own two from El Morro Elementary School and rescued family pets from Emerald Bay.

Durham bus drivers made trip after trip through the smoke to get school kids to safety. High school students helped to soothe the fears of younger children and reunite them with frantic parents.

The Spitaleri family set up sprinklers and water buckets for wildlife. Donations of food, clothing, household goods and personal products poured into town.

Pharmacist Susie McCalla personally delivered emergency prescriptions to customers who couldn’t get back into town.

This week the capricious wind and its evil twin, fire, skipped Laguna, but lessons learned in 1993 kept folks vigilant.

One apprehensive person called in a fire in the canyon, but it turned out to be a fluttering red flag obscured by smoke. That’s OK. Better to jump the gun than spend a lifetime regretting taking no action.

Speaking of heroes: Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council volunteers plant those flags as a warning of hazardous conditions. This past week four-to-six of the volunteers patrolled our vulnerable hillsides day and night.

David Horne started the group after he lost his home in 1993. The council also worked with insurance companies to prevent them from discontinuing coverage in Laguna. We are smarter now than we were in 1993.

Skenderian opined then that local architects would learn from the disaster and they have. The city has introduced more stringent building codes. And even tighter regulations will be recommended by fire and city building department officials at the Nov. 6 council meeting.

In 1994, I wrote of the firestorm, “It was Laguna’s darkest hour.” I can only hope that continues to be true.


OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; hand-deliver to Suite 22 in the Lumberyard, 384 Forest Ave.; call (949) 494-4321 or fax (949) 494-8979.


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