My memories of the Laguna firestorm of 1993 are still vivid, 20 years later.
I photographed the day of the burn, weeks of clean-up and the feature stories that followed. It was a distinctive career experience for me as a photographer, covering my hometown on fire. It could have been anywhere in Orange County, but it was my hometown.
It's one thing to see big fires burn other people's homes, but when they belong to your neighbors and friends, it was something else.
I learned about the fire from a scanner report of a 2-acre brush fire near Laguna Canyon Road and the 405 Freeway a little before noon on Oct. 27. I was on assignment for the Laguna News Post shooting a business portrait. I quickly did the portrait and left.
I photographed the firestorm on several fronts over 15 hours, starting at about 12:30 p.m. I chased the head of the flames from its march from Laguna Canyon Road to its end in Emerald Bay, to its second front on lower Skyline and, lastly, upper Temple Hills.
I was allowed to drive up the closed Laguna Canyon Road with the help of my press credentials but could go no farther than El Toro Road. It was clear the fire was out of control from there.
With no vehicle traffic, you could easily hear the crackling of burning brush and you could feel the heat from a wide fire line.
It was there that I took one of my favorite photos, of two firemen and their lone engine trying to decide what to do. There was nothing they could do.
When a dispatcher from the Laguna Beach Police Department announced homes were on fire in Emerald Bay, I immediately drove there with another photographer and walked in as a car came out — a practiced move we used on bikes to get into the beach of the gated community when we were in high school.
In Emerald Bay there was panic and uncertainty. The winds were much stronger there.
It was a full firefight and residents and neighbors were evacuating to Coast Highway. Super-heated air was torching homes on the upper streets. As soon as I began to run up, I was ordered back and told to stop by an overzealous highway patrolman who was working the gated community.
He yelled from his car megaphone at me and a fellow photographer, "You guys can't go up there. Stop right there." We ignored him. He then sped up to just behind us, jumped from his car and ordered us to stop as my comrade ran for it between two houses. Being closer, I stopped. I didn't want to get arrested and miss this story sitting in the back of a cop car, so I complied and rode with him down the hill to Coast Highway.
He ordered me to sit on the curb next to his car, which was at the south entrance to Emerald Bay, at a mini-command post. I could see smoke billowing overhead and people started covering their faces with shirts and scarves for the first time. The fire was well into the neighborhood.
Like I said, I didn't want to get arrested but I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. When he was distracted by a group of neighbors, I quickly walked off then ran up the street, made a left on another street and cut through a few houses to where I was before. Being a local had its advantages. I heard a siren and never looked back.
I had a feeling I'd get caught again but saw a man hosing down a roof. He'd climbed the tree in the front yard to get up to the roof. I did the same and said something like, "Hello, I'm gonna take pictures of you watering the roof." He was happy for the company and said he was from Chicago. When the cop made it up to the street, he yelled up to the guy to ask if he'd seen me. He said no, and on the cop went. I assumed he had bigger issues.
It was from this roof that I first saw the scope of the fire. Before now, you couldn't see which homes were burning. Now you could see huge homes engulfed by flames sending embers into the sky and onto the neighborhood below. Any home in the path that had brush in the backyard was burning.
When the wind gusted, hard nugget-like embers the size of foam packing peanuts would follow. It was a guessing game as to which home would ignite from these deadly hot projectiles.
People were pulling garden hoses with little pressure to whichever roof they thought would be next. With the blinding smoke it was hard to even look up. By now I was getting low on color slide film, my scanner battery had died, and the gusty winds began to subside.
It was time to leave. I climbed down the tree and walked down to where others were regrouping on Coast Highway regrouping — where I was earlier detained. There was no one there this time.
Just then, I got a page for all O.C. Register photographers to drop off film at a rally point, the Chevron Station in downtown Laguna. Technically I wasn't a Register shooter; I worked for the News Post, but we did share content with them and I did not want to miss the opportunity to get published, so I decided to throw my film into the hat.