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Fighting the Flames

by Joshua Massatt

A FLASH of sharp heat. Tendrils of smoke wafted into the air, rising from a small patch of brush off Laguna Canyon Road, north of San Diego. It was 11:50 AM on the 27th of October 1993, at first an ordinary day for people living around Laguna Hills. No one would ever learn the identity of the arsonist who walked away from that brush patch, but the entire city of Laguna Beach would be impacted by that small, new brushfire.

The coastal communities around Laguna were usually surrounded by greenery. The lowest average humidity level for the area was 54.9 percent, but October often saw much higher levels of water in the atmosphere. Onshore winds carried thick fog onto the shore, draping the land with moisture. But on this particular day, the environment was not kind.

In the Great Basin of Nevada, high pressure had built in the atmosphere as the fall season progressed, causing cold air to sink. The cold air was forced downslope through the California deserts, compressed and warmed by twenty-nine degrees Farenheit for each mile it descended. As the temperature rose, the humidity dropped—in this case to a mere six or seven percent.

The air grew drier. It continued to dry further and pick up speed as it was forced through the canyons and passes of the California deserts, rushing toward the coast.

In Southern California, these winds are called the “Santa Anas,” after Santa Ana canyon, through which they scream at extreme speeds. In the north, they are called “Devil Winds.” Typical gusts reach up to sixty miles per hour—on this day, they were over ninety miles per hour.

When the wind hit the California coastal lands on October 27th, it only took a few hours for it to suck the moisture from the plants and evaporate all the fog. The plants were left with a four percent moisture level.

The wind caught the little brush fire and tugged it along. The brush around Laguna Beach was knee- to waist- high, and firefighter Chris Grogan says, “it moves through that really quick.” The fire flickered and expanded, was caught in the wind’s force and reached out for new fuels.

Many kinds of coastal sage scrub lined the canyon’s slopes and belly—white sage, elderberry, wild buckwheat and others. The plants normally were full of moisture, bearing pale green leaves that looked like soft pine needles. However, it was October, the rainy season had only just started, and it had not rained all year. Almost all of the leaves were dead.

When the fire passed through that scrub, Grogan says it was “like throwing a newspaper in your fireplace.”

Grogan was in his fire engine when the Fountain Valley fire department radioed his crew at 1:00 PM to tell them their earlier assignment was canceled. Fountain Valley is about 5 miles from Laguna Beach and all of Fountain Valley's available firefighting resources were being called into action there. Strike teams, each including a battalion chief in charge of five "light units," or engine companies, were rushing out to face the wildfire. Only the reserves, the units essential to Fountain Valley's fire protection, could be left behind.

Chris’s engine driver changed course and they sped up the coast. It was one of the fastest responses Chris would ever experience: between half an hour and forty-five minutes from the time of notification, all of Fountain Valley's units had arrived at the scene. Enormous resources were being pulled into action from around the state. Three hundred and forty-five fire engines, seventeen bulldozers, eleven hand crews and thirty aircraft rushed to the scene; a total of two thousand fire personnel were deployed in fighting the wild burn. It was a very dangerous fire, but it had only been burning about two hours by the time the Fountain Valley units arrived. Other outside units were already there. In the distance, Chris saw the first smoke.

With him in the fire engine were three other crew members: his captain, Lingo, whom they called RJ; his engineer, Couser; and his partner, Tom Reardon. Tom had been fighting fires six months longer than Chris, who had been at it only a year. The Laguna fire was one of Chris’s first strike-team assignments.
Chris began to see firefighting crews active on the sides of the street. Soon he found himself surrounded by men struggling to fight the fire. It was in the city already and houses were burning.

(continued on page 2)