Wednesday, February 28

Emerald fire stirs memories of ’93 Laguna Beach inferno

Greg Salmeri woke up Thursday to a ringing phone in his Mediterranean-Spanish-style home in Emerald Bay not far from the brush-filled canyons high over the gated community.

“Then I started getting texts, and then I heard someone outside honking the horn,” said Salmeri, who landscapes gardens for high-end Southern California clients.

He looked out of his window toward the ridgeline and saw flames licking up and down the dry brush and shrubs. Were the houses higher up on the ridge going up in smoke?

Related: Brush fire in Emerald Bay area near Laguna Beach consumes 145 acres, is 5% contained

With memories of his father trying to save the house during the devastating 1993 fire that ripped into Laguna Beach and also burned through Emerald Bay, Salmeri combed his mind over what treasures to take in his escape from the home that has been in the family for decades.

Jewelry, his passport, cash, photo albums of his parents and paintings. He went to his closest and grabbed “clothes that mattered — all the designer stuff I’ll never buy again.”

Then he packed the items into his car and watched and waited.

Greg Salmeri of Laguna Beach sits among the many plants and flowers in his garden on April 24, 2019. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Two hours after the call, at 7 a.m., the wind shifted away from the homes — allowing residents to hope this fire wouldn’t be anything like the 1993 inferno, one of the most devastating in Orange County history.

That one began in a canyon, hit Emerald Bay and burned through homes to the ocean. From there, it ravaged the former site of the El Morro Bay trailer park, moved to the edge of Crystal Cove State Park, blew back into North Laguna, jumped Laguna Canyon Road at Big Bend and torched through dry brush up the canyon to the Skyline Drive and Mystic Hills neighborhoods.

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Flames reached 100 feet into the air. Winds whipped at up to 92 mph.

Panicked residents streamed down Coast Highway, packing their vehicles with pets, works of art and other valuables.

Many thought it was the end of Laguna.

That fire torched 441 homes, scorched 14,000 acres and left an estimated $528 million in damage in its wake.

But this time, things didn’t appear nearly as bad.

“As it started to become daylight, the fire and the glow disappeared,” Salmeri said. “I think we were very lucky. If the wind had gone the other way, all the homes could have burned.”

Salmeri put the items back into his home and headed to work in Los Angeles, confident that firefighters had the danger to his community under control.

David Horne, whose home is in the south end of Emerald Bay, first woke up around 3 a.m. when whipping winds slammed items around on his deck and open windows in the home carried drafts shutting doors.

He got up and shuffled around in the dark to close the windows. As he glanced outside, all was still. A typical black night sky.

About an hour later, he was awakened by Emerald Bay security personnel driving through the neighborhoods honking horns and asking residents to prepare to evacuate.

When Horne looked out of his window that time, the scene was “really scary.”

“It was a lot different than 1993, where I watched the fire from a distance,” said Horne, who is chair of the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council. “This was a lot more hectic. Before it was miles away. This time it was hundreds of yards away. It seemed surreal seeing flames licking into the night sky.”

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Horne described packing up valuables as he watched the flames dart high into the sky.

David Horne, director of the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council, said the Feb. 10 fire that broke out along a ridge over Emerald Bay was scarier than the devastating 1993 Laguna Beach fire because the flames were much closer to him this time. (PHOTO BY JEFF ANTENORE, FOR THE REGISTER )

After packing up, he headed to the community’s Emergency Operations Center, where he got things ready in case they needed to staff up with volunteers. He hauled out an emergency generator in case it was needed.

The community’s power was also turned off to prevent putting firefighters into any sort of danger, he said. The power remained out in the area and was not expected to come on until about 11 p.m. Thursday night.

Those at the security center went through a list of residents who might need help to evacuate.

“We made sure anyone that might have difficulty getting out was notified,” he said. “This was not information we had before (During the 1993 fire). If it had gotten worse, we would have had things in place.”

About two miles south in Laguna Beach, Matt Lawson woke up and saw a glow over the ridgeline from his bedroom window.

Matt Lawson, chair of the Laguna Beach’s Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, evacuated during Thursday’s fire. He said the #1 threat to Laguna Beach is the threat of fire. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“That’s getting too close for comfort,” he said. “Even if it’s not right in front of you now, it could be later.”

As part of his overall preparedness, he and his wife, Mary, grabbed the go-bags and put them into the back of their car and headed out of town.

“We have this protocol, under extreme fire risk and the fact that we live in an access-impaired neighborhood, we get out,” said Lawson, who chairs Laguna Beach’s Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee. The couple staged themselves at a nearby shopping center in Dana Point, just beyond Laguna Beach limits.

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The fire underscored the need for Laguna Beach to do even more to mitigate brush fire risk, he said.

“We keep getting the wake-up call but dare not hit the snooze,” he said. “It’s the number one hazard we face in this community.”


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