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Commentary: Laguna fire seared into memory

November 07, 2013|By Bill Lewis

Don Leach's remembrance of the Laguna fire brought me back to a night that is etched in the collective memory of the Newport-Mesa community ("Photographer worked as hometown burned," Coastline Pilot, Oct. 25).

Standing with my family above Back Bay and watching the glow of the fire advance up the back side of Newport Coast and wondering if it would crest the hill and burn down into Buck Gully and Corona del Mar.

Hoping that the firefighters assembled on Newport Coast Road would not be forced to battle the flames that had mocked all efforts to check them.

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Rejoicing when the flames reached the top of the ridge but then advanced no farther as the wind off the ocean stopped the flames for the first time that day.

It's a vivid memory, and Leach's first-person and very personal account was outstanding.

I worked for KFI radio at the time, and our program director David G. Hall wanted a first-hand description of the fire's aftermath. Our broadcast engineer Tony Dinkel and I took the afternoon team of John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou down Coast Highway in an attempt to enter and report from evacuated Laguna Beach communities.

Residents and news crews were not allowed in, but KFI was known as being law enforcement friendly with former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates as a KFI broadcaster. We were permitted access through a CHP check point north of El Moro and drove through an empty Laguna Beach and up to Top of the World Park to set up a remote broadcast location.

John and Ken had been on air in Southern California for less than a year. Laguna in October 1993 was their first exposure to the devastating power of wildfires. From Top of the World, John and Ken vividly described the overall scene.

As news of the broadcast spread, calls came into the station from Laguna residents, their families or friends asking us to check on their homes. They'd left the night before and had no way of knowing whether their homes survived. I drove John through neighborhoods, looking for the addresses in order to provide answers to displaced and hopeful residents.

Our first call was from a concerned son who had not heard from his parents since the day before. We found the house. It was untouched by flames but abandoned. No news on the parents.

The second call took us to an address on Skyline. John was able to talk directly to the home owners. He asked them if they'd left coffee mugs on the hood of their Jeep. They had. The mugs were now fused to what was left of the Jeep.

He asked if their wine rack was immediately inside the front door. It was. The metal of the rack had survived. The door and walls and everything else in the house had not. Nothing except the wine rack remained. We stood on the front porch looking directly into the canyon behind where the house had once stood.

It went on like that throughout the afternoon of Oct. 28. Calls to the station with addresses routed to us. We drove from house to house. Some still standing. Others gone. We kept at it until the sun went down and we could no longer make out locations.

There are other memories from that day after the fire: The absolute amazement at the power of the fire. The penetrating smell of the varied incinerated materials. The stillness in the wake of the previous day's frenetic departures.

But the most vivid is the memory of those mugs. Ordinary items blasted and baked by the fire into small monuments to the power of nature.

BILL LEWIS is a Costa Mesa resident.

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