From the Archives: For Laguna residents, it’s a time for prayer, waiting


Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 28, 1993.


LAGUNA BEACH — As nightfall revealed an eerie ring of red flames above this seaside gem, residents salvaged wedding albums and family mementos and evacuated their homes in prayer.

From the sea to the hills in and around this fabled beach city, residents watched in helpless awe Wednesday as the worst fire in memory threatened to destroy a place of natural beauty and man-made riches that has long prided itself as Orange County’s crown jewel.

A disbelieving Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney watched a spreading wall of flame in late afternoon. “The fire is moving so quickly, I don’t even know whether the City Hall is being hit or not. I just got back into town from Los Angeles and the traffic out of town is endless.”

The fire showed no discernment for economics, hitting million-dollar mansions and trailer homes alike, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people around the area.

Local hotels offered free or discounted rooms to those thrown out by the fire, but many residents were intent on remaining at police blockades to try to see if their homes had survived.

Fire officials could not provide many details late Wednesday about the extent of damage, certain to total in the tens of millions. But the seemingly endless stream of vehicles heading south away from the city — many packed with whatever valuables people could manage to throw in their cars — served as testimony to the viciousness of the blaze.

Lois Aldrin, wife of moon-walking astronaut Buzz Aldrin, gathered a few historic mementos from the family home before retreating ahead of the flames. It was not immediately clear if the Aldrin home was lost in the fire, but she said she feared for the area nonetheless.

“I just hope this fabulous residential area — it is so wonderful — can recover from this,” she said.

An enclave surrounded by water and scenic cliffs, Laguna Beach has long been known for its festive beachfront and the artists’ community established there.

In recent years, it has also become a focal point for the environmental movement and for gay rights activists in Orange County. The city was one of the first in the nation to adopt a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, and former Mayor Robert F. Gentry is one of the first openly gay politicians to be elected in the area.

The area’s picturesque scenery has also provided a frequent backdrop for movies and novels — such as “Laguna Heat” by hillside resident T. Jefferson Parker.

As the fire burned into the night, the Laguna Beach shoreline assumed a macabre, glowing ambience.

Clusters of boats anchored just offshore, their running lights illuminating the beach and the makeshift mobile command posts set up on the sand after being driven by flames toward the sea. Parked nearby were busloads of Marines and sheriff’s deputies, on hand to help with the evacuation and to prevent looting.

The bars were full, as patrons alternated between watching the fires on television, accompanied by running commentaries, and stepping out into the street to view the houses burning silently on the hillside.

The pounding Pacific surf was the only sound. In silhouette, chimney pyres offered mute witness to the homes that once stood there. Above, an orange moon was occasionally obscured by the smoky haze; wind-whipped ash fell like snowflakes.

Hardest hit was the area known as Emerald Bay, an enclave of million-dollar houses that is home to the likes of former baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and landowner Tony Moiso.

Their cars filled with family pictures, pets and other personal items, dozens of Emerald Bay residents stood on the side of Coast Highway Wednesday, desperately peering through the dense smoke for a glimpse of their homes.

Residents said they were alerted to the fire at approximately 12:15 p.m. when police cars blaring evacuation orders cruised down their streets.

Thomas McGonigal, 64, a 17-year Emerald Bay resident, looked out his back window and saw the fire racing down a hill toward him.

“It exploded just like fireworks,” he said. “Full trees went up at once. I got out of there quick.”

On Windsor Place, Loyette Hofey’s neighbors had just enough time to throw a few possessions in their cars, “then we hugged each other and said a little prayer.”

In her rush, all Hofey could take from her home was her purse and the family dog.

“The temperature shot up drastically and our fire alarms were going off like crazy,” said Hofey, 70. “All of a sudden there was smoke and cinders in our eyes and throat.”

After leaving the neighborhood, many residents hung around near police barricades. However, they were forced back several times as huge clouds of smoke and fire billowed over Pacific Coast Highway.

Dr. Stanley Kimball was making a phone call outside the El Morro Mobile Homes, which had been evacuated earlier, when all of a sudden he felt his cheeks flush.

“I looked up and saw the flames coming about 100 yards away,” he said. “I completed my phone call and left.”

At the main post office in Laguna Beach, local Postmaster David Eng was the last to evacuate the building at 5 p.m. as the fire appeared to grow near.

“I’ve sent everyone out,” Eng said, adding that the decision was an obvious one. “This is a no-brainer. I think the fire is about a block away. I’ve got to go.”

But even as schools and other evacuation centers began to fill up, some local residents and business people were determined to stick it out as long as they could.

At the Cottage restaurant, a local landmark on Pacific Coast Highway, owner Jerry Dickson was forced to close by 1:30 p.m., but he said he wasn’t ready to leave the site even as he stood on a rooftop, watching 20-foot flames roll down the hillsides.

Worried about the homes he owns in town, Dickson was considering going to his 63-year-old mother’s house to grab some pictures for her.

“That’s what she wants, pictures,” he mused. “But I don’t want to leave. I’m not going to leave until it’s hot. This is my life. This is my business and I don’t want to leave until it’s hot, until my hands are burning.”

For the well-heeled, there were discounted rooms of $99 available at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in nearby Laguna Niguel.

Throughout the evening, fancy sports car and luxury automobiles--jam-packed with belongings and shaggy pets — lined the driveway of the hotel, and officials there predicted that rooms will be booked through the weekend.

Hotel spokesman Geoff Young said more than 50 displaced Laguna Beach residents had checked into the hotel by mid-evening. “It’s been very busy today,” he said, adding that special concierges had been assigned to assist Laguna Beach residents. The hotel was also allowing guests to check in with their pets, something usually prohibited.

At the Newporter Hyatt, meanwhile, hotel officials said they were also offering discounted rooms, at $75, and were booked solid with fire victims for Wednesday night.

Frazzled officials at Laguna Art Museum, located on Coast Highway about a quarter of a mile north of Laguna Canyon Road, moved into a vault every work of art that would fit after closing the museum to the public in the early afternoon.

Even if flames never reached the 75-year-old museum, smoke seeping inside the building could damage or destroy delicate artworks, officials said.

The “Kustom Kulture” exhibition in the galleries includes nearly 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures and other objects by Von Dutch, Ed Roth, Robert Williams and lesser-known car culture artists. The museum also owns more than 3,000 works by 19th- and 20th-Century California artists, including works by Laguna Beach impressionist landscape painters, “American Scene” painters and leading contemporary artists.

“We’re trying to figure out if we’ve taken all the emergency precautions we can,” Bolton Colburn curator of collections, said in late afternoon. “I’d be surprised if (the fires) got down here,” he said, “but it sure looks scary.”

Jack de Kruis, a resident of Cameo Shores Drive, said that he had never seen anything like the blaze in his 23 years as a resident of the area. “God, it’s sickening, isn’t it?” he said.

Nearby, neighbor Gianna Chavez was weeping. Police on Coast Highway would not let her return to her home in the El Morro trailer park.

“Even my wedding rings are in there,” she said. “Everything’s in there.”