Victims recall deadly Southern California fires
LOS ANGELES -- Ten years ago, Ketta Brown looked out her window at flames advancing on her ridgetop home in Laguna Beach.
"They were eating trees -- 20-, 30-foot trees," she said. "I watched it come and I remember thinking 'This can't be happening. Somebody has to come and stop this."'
But firefighters were busy trying to defend other homes, and Brown's house and hundreds of others burned on Oct, 27, 1993.
The fall of 1993 was one of the most disastrous in Southern California's long history of wildfires. From Oct. 26 to Nov. 7, more than 20 fires sparked by arson, campfires and fallen power lines roared through six counties.
Four people died and 162 were injured. More than 1,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed, and 193,814 acres burned, according to the governor's Office of Emergency Services.
Lessons learned from the siege led to tougher arson laws and building codes, greater scrutiny of fire dangers and, officials say, better tactics for the next time.
"Fires will happen. It's a matter of when," said Joan House, a City Council member in Malibu, where three people died and more than 300 homes burned.
Today, however, "our chance of fighting them is better," she said.
Conditions for destructive wildfires were ripe in 1993. Drought had turned vegetation to tinder, and wind had blown for nearly two weeks.
On Oct. 26, a half-dozen fires erupted from Ventura County south to San Diego. About a dozen more flared the next day and a handful the day after that.
Eventually, some 15,000 firefighters were called in, but they weren't enough as 50 mph wind scattered embers and sent walls of flame raging toward the sea. Out-of-town fire companies got confused in the box canyons of Malibu. Water pressure ran low in Laguna.
In Laguna, Brown picked up her son at preschool at 11:45 a.m.
"I came home to make lunch and looked out my living room window and saw this fire way, way, way over," she recalled.
Within two hours, it was rushing toward her hilltop. She packed a suitcase with her children's clothes, paged her husband and told him to get home, sent the children to stay with a friend, then left herself.
"I could probably practically throw an apple core to where the fire was when I left," she said. "It was what you would picture hell to be because of the smoke and the blackness ... just this violent orange wall and then black above that."
Her husband stayed until police ordered everyone out. He returned the next morning.
"Of 375 houses, maybe a dozen were left and we weren't one of them," Brown said.
The fire generated a gale that spread embers and dried out everything in its path. It devoured 45 acres and four homes a minute. The 2,000-degree heat could melt glass.
"We were seeing these houses above us just imploding," recalled Los Angeles County Fire Engineer Richard Shima. "They were collapsing in on themselves, they were so hot."
The final total in Laguna was 14,337 acres burned and 441 homes damaged or destroyed.
People living along the lush canyons had known fire was a threat.
"There was a lot of brush," Ken Crumley said. "Winters would bring in the rainfall, and then after spring the beautiful new grass would turn dark brown."
Crumley, 71, and his wife, Katherine, 68, watched their Mystic Hills home burn on television: "We saw our house, and we all of a sudden saw the thing enveloped in flames ... whoosh!"
They rebuilt with a nicer home on the same spot. Leaving the fire-prone area, with its rugged canyons and view of the sea, was never an option.
They were not alone in rebuilding, and many homes in Malibu and Laguna now would sell for $1 million or more.
But Laguna officials have tightened housing codes. Roofs now must be fire-resistant and stucco has replaced wood siding. Streets have been widened to accommodate fire engines. About twice a year, a flock of goats is brought in to chew down the brush.
Still, "every time the wind starts to blow, everybody's panic level goes way up," said Brown, whose family also rebuilt.
The most dangerous time in Southern California is autumn, when the hot, dry Santa Ana wind blows through the narrow canyons.
This year, there's an added factor. Thousands of conifers weakened by a prolonged drought have been killed by an infestation of bark beetles.
San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have "400,000 acres with standing dead trees and houses scattered all among them," said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
And CDF spokesman Bill Peters said Southern California communities have failed to heed at least one lesson -- the danger of allowing an increasing number of homes to be built in wild areas.
"Nature still takes the path nature always takes, and we're just getting in the way of it," Peters said.