Land's End: Twenty years after the wildfire that devastated Laguna Beach

Friend Mary lives in Laguna Canyon, in a cozy, sun-dappled house that she and her husband created from imagination and scratch. Every nook holds a piece of their hearts. Every niche tells a story. Take the yard: clean stone and concrete, salvia, sage, and cactus—a telling contrast to their home’s soft, cushiony inside. There’s a 20-year-old piece of history behind this.

It was four days before Halloween, a Wednesday, coming up on lunchtime. The weather was pushing 80 degrees with a relative humidity of about 6 percent. People elsewhere might rejoice and cry, “Indian summer!” Here, everyone knew it for what it was: fire weather.

Lips and fingertips were papery, leaves were brittle. The Santa Ana’s were gusting at 92 mph in some places. Already, big brushfires had erupted in Thousand Oaks, Chatsworth, Villa Park, Altadena. It should have been no surprise when, at 11:50 a.m., someone reported the chaparral was ablaze on Laguna Canyon Road between El Toro Road and the 405.

But that’s how it is with disaster. Even when you expect it, you can’t quite imagine it actually happening, that you won’t be the exception, that Nature won’t relent and go soft in the end.  

Of course, Nature doesn’t. The wind whipped that fire from ridge to ridge all the way to the ocean. From the shake-roofed estates of Emerald Bay to the now-defunct trailer park at El Moro Canyon, it laid waste to homes both posh and poor.

Mary and her husband had been vacationing that week in Lake Tahoe. When they turned on the TV and heard Emerald Bay was ablaze, they thought at first that the newscaster was talking about Emerald Bay State Park in Northern California. Then they recognized the aerial view and their knees went weak.  

The Laguna Beach Fire of 1993 burned more than 14,000 acres and consumed nearly 400 homes; the mudslides that came when it started to rain a couple of weeks into November added to the destruction. And that was just a fraction of the loss Southern California suffered that year. And that year’s loss, in turn, was just a fraction of the losses suffered in more recent fire seasons. The ’07 Santiago fire: more than 28,000 acres. The ’08 Freeway Complex fire: more than 30,000 acres.

Authorities watch their words. They’ll say we’re in a drought that has gone on for years, maybe decades, that the weird freeze last winter turned an ominous amount of sumac into deadwood, that even in June, the sage and the greasewood were drier than dust in Black Star Canyon, that this year’s fire season came earlier than anyone can remember.

They won’t say “global warming.” Well, why bother? It wouldn’t make fire season any less of an annual menace. Instead they report that a lot has changed since ’93 — better science, equipment, communication, tactics — and that two important things haven’t: Nature is still Nature, and people still have a hard time imagining that someday it will come for them.  

Mary imagined. That year, before she and her husband left on vacation, they cleared their brush and put in drought-tolerant plants that were less likely to burn. Today, their soft, cozy house is among the few that remain from that hellish fire season. Back in ’93, they called themselves lucky. But firefighters have a term for what we all must do, now, in this land of soft lives and this age of ever more unimaginable disasters. They call it “hardening your home.”

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.