Wildfire Memories Inspire a New Novel by Martin J Smith

How I turned lingering memories from the 1993 Laguna Beach fire into a new novel called ‘Combustion’
Orange Coast Magazine_Sept16_Jasu Hu Combustion Martin J Smith

Illustration by Jasu Hu

At the tail end of our long, hot 1993 summer, word of trouble filtered into The Orange County Register newsroom. A wildfire that began in the chaparral on Laguna Canyon Road between El Toro Road and the 405 Freeway was burning from ridge to ridge toward Laguna Beach.

It wasn’t just newspaper reporters like me who were tracking it. Laguna Beach is a touchstone for everyone in Orange County, the place we go to remind ourselves why we pay so much for housing and spend hours in traffic. It’s where we take our out-of-town guests to show off the county’s beauty, where we celebrate special occasions.

Laguna Beach belongs to all of us.

At the time, I was a columnist and feature writer, not a breaking news reporter. But the newsroom quickly became an all hands-on-deck operation as the firestorm winds roared to 92 miles per hour across landscape as dry as kindling. The fire soon was over the hill and into the neighborhoods, and eventually it would consume 14,337 acres and destroy 441 homes. By the time I was able to ditch my car along South Coast Highway, cadge a ride into the ravaged hills, and talk my way into the fire zone, it was over. Much of the city was in ashes.

A lot has changed in the past 23 years, according to a 2013 Register story commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fire: “Residents can’t build homes with shake shingle roofs. Firefighters have better training, apparatus, communication, and mutual-aid agreements. The water district has two more reservoirs and backup generators. City Hall has tighter regulations and prepares with disaster simulations. Community members take initiative and educate the public on fire danger.”

I left the Register the year after the fire to become a magazine editor and eventually a novelist. But journalists and writers are notorious hoarders. We collect experiences, information, and memories, and we store them in forgotten parts of our brains until we find them useful. I spent hours walking through what was left of Laguna Beach’s homes and neighborhoods, talking to firefighters and resident who looked like they’d been clocked in the forehead with a two-by-four. Then, for two decades, I tucked away the whole visceral experience of witnessing that carnage—along with one eerie post-fire memory that will stick with me forever.

Now more than 20 years later, I’ve processed it all into a novel called “Combustion,” which comes out Sept. 27. And I wonder if the book would even exist had I not been sent that day into the aftermath of an inferno.

A novel’s title works best when it’s a potent metaphor. The word combustion, to me, implies the start of something thrilling—but also dangerous. One of the central characters is a woman in an unhappy marriage whose secret experimentation with online sex leads to the macabre murder of her powerful husband. Her story unfolds against the backdrop of a wildfire that’s increasingly out of control.

This all takes place in a fictional, inland foothills town called Los Colmas, which in terms of geography sits about where the actual town of Redlands is located. The creep of suburbia is advancing to accommodate refugees from L.A. and O.C., and like Laguna Beach, that residential development still abuts dry and flammable wilderness. My fictional fire starts on a dry, wicked-hot fall day, when a random lightning strike from a cloudless sky hits a solitary California oak just as a lone hiker is taking a photo of the tree. The scenery might sound familiar:

“Every year, after the winter rains, the springtime canyon was carpeted by lush wild grasses and sprays of orange and red wildflowers, which gave refuge to countless rodents, rabbits, and rattlesnakes. That’s when it was most spectacular. But she preferred it now, in October, when the oak was surrounded in every direction by high wheaty groundcover and crisp chaparral that had been drying in the sun since the last spring rain, to a color the water conservation naggers called ‘California Golden.’ By this time of year, and especially this year, the canyon looked like it had been covered by a giant, rumpled rug. The mighty oak stood at its center. It was a beautiful tinderbox.”

I sometimes ride my bike along a ridge that leads into the Top of the World neighborhood of Laguna Beach, overlooking homes that seem to tumble down the canyons to the Pacific far below. Friends live in some of those homes. I think of them and worry, especially this time of year because they live in what strikes me still as a particularly beautiful tinderbox.

In 1993, as I made my way past charred hulks of cars, sad concrete foundations, and the ashes of so many scorched lives, I noticed something peculiar. Almost every home site had a gas pipe running to it and, even though the houses were gone, natural gas was still flowing through the pipes. I remember seeing dozens of those pipes sticking up through the ashes, each with a blue flame dancing at its tip like a melancholy candle. At the time, I remember thinking how odd that seemed; those inadvertent, flickering torches were the most apparent sign of life amid all that crushing devastation. It was beyond irony.

Years went by, then decades. I didn’t think of those strange little torches much, or at all. The city was rebuilt. Lessons were learned. Laguna Beach is as charming and fragrant as ever, and an unfamiliar visitor might never know what happened in that place not so long ago.

But when I sat down to write “Combustion,” it all came back. The rising panic. The powerless despair. The stinging eyes. The acrid smell of burnt everything. And the memory of those solitary blue flames. They made their way into a scene where a veteran firefighter surveys the path of destruction:

“He’d never seen anything like it. The blaze was moving like a runaway train, up hills, into valleys, across inland Southern California’s wide, flat plains where housing tracts stood like sun-dried dominoes. It spread in every direction from the point of origin in the foothills, fanned by the winds, a spreading char-black stain of indiscriminate destruction. It had turned more than a thousand homes to ash during the past three days, leaving in its wake only concrete foundations, stand-alone stone fireplaces, and tiny blue flames where open gas lines marked each home site like a flickering candle.”

As often happens with the passage of time, though, memories change. In 1993, I saw those candles as sad little reminders of what was lost. Remembering them now, they strike me as clear signs of hope for the resurrection to come.

Martin J. Smith was Editor-in-Chief of Orange Coast for more than a decade. His “Combustion” (Diversion Books) is available at bookstores and through online retailers. Or go to orangecoast.com/contest/combustion to win a signed copy.

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