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Commentary: Laguna fire came perilously close to Newport

November 08, 2013|By Bill Lewis

Re. "He worked, watching his hometown burn," (Nov. 3): Daily Pilot Photo Editor Don Leach's remembrance of the Laguna fire brought me back to a night that is etched in the collective memory of the Newport-Mesa community: standing with my family above Back Bay and watching the glow of the fire advance up the back side of Newport Coast and wondering if it would crest the hill and burn down into Buck Gully and Corona del Mar.

Hoping that the firefighters assembled on Newport Coast Drive would not be forced to battle the flames that had mocked all efforts to check them. Rejoicing when the flames reached the top of the ridge, but then advanced no farther as the wind off the ocean stopped the flames for the first time that day. It's a vivid memory, and Don's first person and very personal account was outstanding.

I worked for KFI radio at the time, and our program director, David G. Hall, wanted a first-hand description of the fire's aftermath. Our broadcast engineer, Tony Dinkel, and I took the afternoon team of John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou down Coast Highway in an attempt to enter and report from evacuated Laguna Beach communities.

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Residents and news crews were not allowed in, but KFI was known as being law-enforcement friendly and we were permitted access through a CHP checkpoint north of El Moro and drove through an empty Laguna Beach and up to Top of the World Park to set up a remote broadcast location.

John and Ken had been on air in Southern California for less than a year. Laguna in October 1993 was their first exposure to the devastating power of wildfires. From Top of the World, John and Ken vividly described the overall scene. As news of the broadcast spread, calls came into the station from Laguna residents, their families or friends asking us to check on their homes. They'd left the night before and had no way of knowing whether their homes survived. I drove John through neighborhoods, looking for the addresses in order to provide answers to displaced and hopeful residents.

Our first call was from a concerned son who had not heard from his parents since the day before. We found the house. It was untouched by flames, but abandoned. No news on the parents. The second call took us to an address on Skyline.

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