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He worked, watching his hometown burn

Editor's Notebook

News photographer's long day documenting destruction of neighbors' homes and lives is indelibly etched into his memory.

November 02, 2013|By Don Leach
  • Early on in the 19993 Laguna Beach firestorm, two firefighters from Orange County Fire Station 222 survey the fire as it speeds toward the coast at the intersection at Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads. Soon it would split into two fronts and destroy more than 350 homes in Emerald Bay, Canyon Acres, Skyline, Mystic Hills and Temple Hills.
Early on in the 19993 Laguna Beach firestorm, two firefighters… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

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.

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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.

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