Just as so many other Californians have done in recent months, I’ve been choking down smoke today from the wildfire in south Orange County, bathed in the eerie yellowish cast that the air takes on at such times. Other smoke has reached me this year — from nearby counties, from as far away as Oregon — but the sore throat from this day’s smoke left me with an especially eerie feeling in my gut. This day, Oct. 27, is the anniversary of the 1993 Laguna Beach fire that came close to wiping out the heart of my town before the Santa Ana winds dwindled and the marine layer pushed in from the southwest, prodding the flames back where they’d come from.
I was on the news side at The Times back then, and on that day, I was covering the equally disastrous Altadena fire ― we would soon hear of yet a third that day, in Malibu ― when the call came that an arson fire in Laguna Canyon had jumped so far, so fast that my neighborhood of Bluebird Canyon was being evacuated. The kids, then 10 and 2, were home with the babysitter, who evacuated them, the dog and cockatiel in my ancient Mazda station wagon.
The details of the day whirl past in my mind’s eye. Making the rounds at the evacuation center, trying to find my kids; it’s hard to remember how we all functioned in those days before cell phones. My son’s soaked diaper. Watching a TV in some institutional-looking room, with a newscaster standing in front of a well-known corner downtown, saying that the fire had just taken out City Hall and the police and fire station.
Had the fire jumped across the street, the picturesque village part of town would have been gone too.
I’m happy to say that newscaster was wrong about the destruction caused that day. City Hall came close to being burned but remained untouched because of the firefighters who put their backs to the building and their fronts to the fire, determined that it would not go down. Over and over, in front of one house or another, other firefighters would do the same.
Ultimately, the Laguna fire would char more than 14,000 acres, damage the middle school and destroy more than 400 homes. Ours wasn’t one of them; the fire stopped one canyon over. When we returned home, we realized how lucky we’d been. The house was surrounded by embers.
Strangely, the fire was the start of a personal transformation.
Raised on “Bambi” and the belief that all wildfire was terrible, I was surprised to learn that fire is natural and restorative to wild lands in my adopted state California. Wildflowers in gold, red and lavender massed themselves on the hills of Laguna Canyon. Seemingly dead oak trees put out new growth at their crowns; the red-tipped leaves of laurel sumac grew from the base of plants.
It was all so heartening that I developed a new interest in nature, which I’d always appreciated more as a passive observer. I volunteered at the adjacent wilderness park, became certified as a naturalist specializing in plants, wrote a hiking book.
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. As new understanding unfolded for me, I learned that fire ecology is a lot more complicated than “brush fire equals pretty flowers.” The spread of annual invasive plants, especially grasses, is so pervasive that after a fire, they tend to sprout up first, choking out annual native plants that take longer to make a comeback. True, the Tecate cypress, a rare tree that grows in one area covered in my book, can reproduce only when fire loosens its cones, allowing for the dropping of new seed. But it takes them 35 years to mature enough for that to happen, so more frequent fires could wipe out this population entirely.
In general, a 35-year fire cycle is about right for much of our environment. More, and we stand to lose the plants and the animals that depend on them. Oh, sure, we can always grow more of the plants, but we’re now in a state of continual restoration. Make no mistake about what that means. It’s hard to re-create a self-sustaining environment when the invasive plants have taken over. It’s like we’re being forced to become the perpetual gardeners of many of our wilderness areas.
My town is famous for being among the first to use goats to keep weeds down. They also keep down the native annuals, though, and spread the seed of invasive plants through their droppings. I’m never sure whether to be delighted or dismayed by the sight of the frolicking kids ― goat kids ― each summer in my canyon.
I’ve become a devotee of the idea that we need to do less cropping of the wild to save our houses and take more steps to protect our houses from within the neighborhood outward rather than the other way around. I plant lemonadeberry, laurel sumac and ceanothus and other natives around my house to provide habitat for local birds, native bees and small critters. Most of them are fire resistant as well. I just had screen mesh put over all the roof vents to keep embers from coming inside. More needs to be done, but it takes considerable money to replace the wood siding on my house and close off those big, open mid-1960s eaves.
Every 15 years or so, whatever insurance company I’m with stops writing policies for my neighborhood, in the back of a box canyon with only one road out, and I go into panic-research mode to find coverage. I’ve planned my escape routes for various scenarios, including a rapidly moving fire that could overtake my car on the packed road to safety. (Leave the car, run to the beach.) There’s a cabinet just inside the front door of my house that holds boxes for my five-minute evacuation plan: Important documents, treasured photos, an emergency pack, and these days, a COVID personal protective equipment pack. There’s a list taped inside the cabinet door of what to grab first if I have a few extra minutes: The needlepoint my father made for my youngest child, the framed first watercolor by my granddaughter, one or two of my mother’s china teacups.
Destructive as it was, the Laguna fire gave me a falsely optimistic view of fire. Yes, Native Americans used to set them, and in doing so, helped restore the land. But those weren’t the times we are in. The massive, deadly and destructive firestorms that were caused in part by our having suppressed fire for so long ― but even more by our refusal to cop to what life under climate change will look like ― aren’t the kinds of events that leave you chirping about the bush mallow (a fire-following plant) with delicate cups of pink-lavender flowers that crop up afterward on hillsides. If we don’t spend serious amounts on protecting our fire-adjacent cities in environmentally responsible ways, both the homes and the backcountry will be devastated.
In truth, my house never should have been built where it is, but who knew that when it was built a half-century ago, or when I bought it 30 years ago? If I were more real-estate savvy, I would move to a less fire-endangered place. But where else would I see, once in a great while, a bobcat in my own backyard? Or lupine that has volunteered itself to put up purple spikes of flowers each spring in my front yard?
So I watch today as the sun manages to poke its way through the smoky haze from the fire threatening the east Irvine area. My mind is on how fast my family could throw things into the minivan and take off. What if the cat refuses to be found?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.