Laguna Beach

Fire Files

Fire burns 175 acres of wilderness, injures 3 firefighters, and prompts evacuations…but thanks to our fire and emergency personnel, we are all safe

LBFD took quick actions to safeguard Laguna Beach residents after a fire broke out in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, right in our backyard, on Saturday afternoon.

“We were notified, and our crews went to the Top of the World and began to set up in case the fire extended to the homes,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. “They were joined by other companies due to the threat, and we had approximately 15 Engine companies in our neighborhood.

Fire Files City of Aliso Viejo

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Courtesy of City of Aliso Viejo

Aliso Fire raging on Saturday late afternoon

By 3:56 p.m. on Saturday, Laguna Beach Fire Department ordered immediate evacuation of approximately 1,500 Laguna Beach residents in the Top of the World and Old Top of the World areas due to fire danger. 

“With our Fire Department’s deep knowledge of the drainage patterns, canyon topography and wind behaviors in the fire area we quickly identified homes that could be in the path of fire and took immediate action to get those residents out,” said Chief Garcia.

The City set up a temporary shelter for displaced residents at the Susi Q Community Center where some residents stayed overnight Saturday. Pets were allowed as well. 

 “The City sincerely wants to thank all of the residents who evacuated their homes for their cooperation during the Aliso Fire emergency,” said Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig. “As one of the residents evacuated this weekend, I know it is not easy to pick up and leave your home at a moment’s notice, not knowing when you’ll be able to return. We want to thank everyone who evacuated for their diligence and patience.”

According to Thanh Nguyen, public information officer of the Orange County Incident Management Team, the fire, which originated in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, spread quickly from one acre to 175 acres due to winds, hillside pitch and drought conditions.

Fire Files Scott Burn

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Photo by Scott Brashier

The Aliso Fire burned 175 acres of wilderness

“The weather pattern that we’ve had for the past several days – in the morning it’s fairly calm and in the afternoons it picks up – that’s what got this fire going. That in combination with the topography. You have steep hillsides. If the fire starts at the bottom, the heat moves upward, so that when the fire actually gets to it (the base of the hillside), it takes off really easily. And then, the drought situation doesn’t help with the fuel moisture so that vegetation lights up pretty fast.”

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation.

“At this time our investigators are still out at the scene and we don’t have a conclusive cause (of the fire) yet. We’re asking for the public’s assistance if they were in or around the area at the time the fire started, to contact the Tip Line at 1.800.222.TIPS (8477),” said Nguyen.

Thankfully, no structures were lost, although the fire did come extremely close to Soka University, said Nguyen. “With firefighters on the scene fairly quickly, they were able to stop the forward progression.”

Fire Files Scott Plane

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Two air tankers circled the fire with retardant all day Saturday, followed by helicopters attacking the middle with water drops

However, three firefighters suffered injuries. “One was taken off the line, but did not go to the hospital. The second one did go to the hospital to be evaluated – their injuries were minor. The third one on Monday was out on the line – I don’t know the extent of that person’s injury either, however, he was airlifted to the hospital via OCFA helicopter,” said Nguyen.

As of Monday, according to Chief Garcia, there are currently 525 firefighters still assigned to the fire, which on Tuesday, June 5 at 7:45 a.m., was 75 percent contained after burning 175 acres. The Orange County Fire Authority and Orange County Parks, 85 engines, two helicopters, four bulldozers and nine hand crews have been working to contain the fire, rotating shifts in 24-hour increments.

“The response to the Aliso Fire was a well-coordinated partnership between the Laguna Beach Fire Department, Orange County Fire Authority, CalFire, many assisting local municipalities and all Laguna Beach City Departments,” Garcia said. “I want to especially thank the Laguna Beach Police Department for helping evacuate people to safety, and also thank our affected residents who remained calm and refused to panic.”

Fire Files Mike Jarnot OCFA

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Courtesy of Mike Jarnot OCFA

OCFA was integral in fighting the Aliso Woods Canyon Fire

It is unknown at this time how much wildlife was lost.

Hallie Jones, Executive Director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, said, “Fire is a natural part of the wilderness ecosystems, and while the immediate habitat impacts are severe, the park will recover.

“Here at Laguna Canyon Foundation, we’re so grateful to our park rangers and first responders for protecting the homes and people.”

She said the best thing the community can do is to stay away from the park, which will be closed until further notice while the fire crews extinguish any last hot spots or smoldering brush.

“Let the rangers do their job and let the land heal. Footprints and bike tracks will just cause more damage,” Jones said.

Once the park opens, LCF volunteers will work with OC Parks to keep people out of the burned area and educate visitors.

Longtime Laguna TOW resident Sande Werthe evacuated “after the search lady came running by” and she “received a phone call from the police department to evacuate”, she said. It was her 80th birthday on Sunday.

After she was evacuated, Werthe went to Laguna Presbyterian Church and listened as to the choir as they rehearsed for an upcoming concert. Pastor Jerry Tankersley and his wife were evacuated too since they live nearby.

Fire Files City of Laguna Beach

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The aftermath of the fire, looking out from Top of the World

 “The Susi Q really did a wonderful job of organizing. I was so impressed. I finally got back to my place at 2:30 p.m. and went to a friend’s house who made a Mexican dinner for my birthday. After that I finally got to put my feet up and relax,” Werthe said. 

She was also in the same neighborhood during the fire in ‘93 for the fire and was forced to evacuate.

“My house was in escrow and my mom lived alone nearby. We were concerned we’d lose both houses. I kept calling my answering machine and every time it picked up I thought everything was still fine,” Werthe said. “I did the same thing this time and sang happy birthday to myself. It’s a birthday I will never forget.” 

She, like other community members, lauded the hard working personnel behind the evacuations.

“I can’t stress enough how wonderful the City was and the great job the people at the Susi Q did checking people in and making them feel comfortable, Werthe said. “It’s one way to meet the neighbors, but definitely not the best way.”

Denis Cambruzzi, a Laguna Beach resident since the ‘80s was here during the 1993 fire on Mountain View Drive. 

“We were fortunate to keep ours,” he said referring to his and his wife’s home on Mountain View Drive,” Cambruzzi said.

There was no comparison between the fear he felt this time around and during the ’93 fire, he said.

“That one was scary, during fire season and propelled by the dry hot winds but, began much further away. The winds blew smoke in our direction all day and by evening the fire followed,” Cambruzzi said.

This one began very close and only got scary for about an hour, he said.

“And then these pilots put it down. Hitting it from all sides with fire retardant and water from planes and helicopters. They flew into and thankfully out of that canyon countless times. Brown smoke followed by the victorious white plumes,” Cambruzzi said. “Truly amazing. The firefighters on the ground were also braving the inferno hand to hand with shovels, axes, and chain saws.”

Jean Keyes from deck at Bluebird Canyon

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Photo by Jean Keyes

The path of one airplane, as seen from Jean Keyes’ home in Bluebird Canyon

Sawdust artist September McGee was walking in the park when she learned that they were being evacuated on Saturday.

“I was looking at the birds in the trees and the sky looked clear,” she said. 

It didn’t look as clear on the other side.

“I live half way down Bern Street and they were ready for us to roll. Then they went back up the hill and backed off. So luckily, we didn’t have to leave. But it’s important to give kudos for everyone involved, they did a very good job,” McGee said. “The evacuations were very organized.”

“I knew that with the birds still singing in the trees that it’s going to be fine. It’s a good sign. After all, they know more than we do,” Mc Gee added.

See more photos from the scene by staff photographer Scott Brashier

Click on photos for larger images 

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