When Favorite Trails Burn, What’s Left Behind?

On Wednesday, October 27, 1993, we got word at work that a fire had broken out in Laguna Canyon, which runs east-west and bisects Laguna Beach, and that it was moving quickly toward the town of 24,000. I left work immediately, drove 10 minutes to the rickety wooden cottage in South Laguna that I shared with my wife, and began throwing our photos, then our clothes, then the art on the walls into my black Pathfinder. Evacuations were ordered in the center of town, and residents streamed out along Pacific Coast Highway in bumper to bumper traffic on the only two ways out of Laguna now that the canyon was blocked.

Joni came home at the end of the work day and we waited for word to leave. It never came. Instead, ash rained down on the house, Santa Ana winds punched off-shore, standing up a righteous autumn swell that pounded Aliso Beach, and those of us at the south end of town worried about friends and relatives to the north. We never did have to evacuate, and after a sleepless night, the fire was put out the next day, just 30 hours after it had been started by an arsonist.

Although it was brief, the 1993 Laguna fire was one of the costliest in California history. More than 440 houses were burned, and the damage was estimated to be $528 million. 17,000 acres were charred, and fire watchers were stunned at how quickly the blaze moved: Just two hours after lighting, flames had destroyed houses in the tony Emerald Bay neighborhood and jumped Laguna Canyon to the south.

It sounds absurdly trivial but for me one of the great lessons of the Laguna fire is that those fireproof safes are anything but. We had friends who lived in Emerald Bay, and on the Saturday after the fire we drove over to help them sort through the rubble for anything of value. There was nothing left. Not one item in their house. A chimney stood sentinel, but that was it. Incongruously, there was a lime green plastic squirt gun, just big enough for a kindergartner’s hand, laying there in the black ash, perhaps borne on the winds or dropped by a lookie-loo.

In the months and years after the Laguna fire, most of the people we knew who lost homes rebuilt them, and the land itself came back quickly. Crystal Cove State Park, where I often mountain biked, was open within a year or so, and the chaparral rebounded with lightning speed. In those first post-conflagration rides, I learned to be careful as I swept past standing deadwood or I’d come home blackened from soot and looking like a chimney sweep. By the second spring, though, the winter rain brought flowers so tall they’d block out the sun, and I’d ride through tunnels of yellow, pollen smearing my shoulders instead of ash.

The chaparral, I knew, evolved through fire, was nurtured by fire, was made possible by fire. Here, in regeneration, was proof. Yes, some people lost houses. But fire was an elemental force. There was a small part of me that wished we’d lost our stuff, that we’d wipe the slate clean and start anew, just to see what color blossoms spring rains would bring to our lives.

Twenty-five years later, Laguna is safe, but all over the Golden State fires are burning. Earlier today, Monday as I write this, another of my favorite riding areas caught fire and tonight it burns out of control. They’re calling it the Holy fire, but that sounds weird, as it sparked in Holy Jim Canyon and no one would think to call it anything but Holy Jim. It’s too early to know the cause, and way too early to know the outcome, but 1,200 acres and a cabin are gone, and throughout the Cleveland National Forest all the campgrounds nearby have been closed. Two hikers were evacuated, and thank your lucky stars for that, because the Santa Ana Mountains, where Holy Jim is located, are big, burly and choked with prickles and steeps and poison oak. There are not a place where you’d even think about going cross-country, unless your life depended on it, and maybe not even then.

So, Holy Jim is burning. In June, Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park caught fire. Now, that was a hold your breath and cross your fingers fire. Holy Jim is rural country, and there’s still a chance it will drop out of the mountains and burn communities to the east, but Aliso Woods, despite its wilderness designation, is a large pocket park in the middle of densely packed homes, its southern border a five minute drive from my house. To the west is Laguna Beach, where dwellings rebuilt after the 93 fire stand in modern and mute testament to the human spirit, and to the east is the rapidly spreading middle class community of Aliso Viejo—houses with views of the chaparral, orders of magnitude more affordable than Laguna, and a Trader Joe’s nearby. Aliso, dry with brush, cholla cactus, and ancient live oak trees, has been sitting there like a tinder box in the middle of a powder magazine.

Fortunately, firefighters brought everything to bear on the Aliso fire, and despite some evacuations, no homes were destroyed or damaged. Selfishly, as Strava can attest that I’ve ridden the Aliso Woods trails thousands of times, I was happy to discover that only a couple short sections of singletrack are now off limits.

In July, the community of Idyllwild started burning at the hands of an arsonist, who was quickly caught and could spend the rest of his life behind bars. Idyllwild learned well the lessons of a previous fire, and the town was mostly saved (though houses to the south were burned), yet the Cranston fire swooped around the community, tucked as it is on the southern slopes of Mt. San Jacinto, and burned to the north toward Tahquitz Peak, one of the pioneering grounds for rock climbing in America back in the early 20th century.

That side of the mountain is home to what’s known as the South Ridge Trail, and it’s a trail that I know well. When my kids were little, we did multi-generational hikes to a ridgecrest along the trail—just a couple of miles up but high enough to get grandparents huffing and Dad lightheaded with Junior on his back. On the South Ridge, I trail-ran with my son in a Bob suspension stroller; I held my toddler daughter’s hand as she explored; I did my first really long mountain running loop, 14 miles up and over the peak and down the other side. I backpacked with friends, slept in the dirt beneath a fire tower, and, so many years later, sent my then 16-year-old son and his buddy there for a night of their own.

The Cranston fire, I heard today, is expected to be fully contained within the week. As for the South Ridge Trail, fire perimeter maps show it burned. As for the Tahquitz fire lookout, which stands at 8,846 feet and was in continuous use for 77 years, I do not know. Perimeter maps show it within the burn zone, too. Maybe it still stands. Maybe it’s nothing but a foundation and some stubs of legs.

We are but temporary things, and so of course is our stuff. In 1993, I romanticized loss like the young fool that I was. Today, I understand better the emotional toll of material devastation. My friends moved on, but they never rebuilt. Fire regenerates, fire makes life anew, but it also leaves scars that won’t fade until we do. Trails around Idyllwild are reopened, but not South Ridge. To the east of there, long portions of the Pacific Crest Trail remain closed many years after a wildfire, as there are too many standing dead trees, too many widow makers, to let people return. Same goes for portions of San Gorgonio, at 11,503 feet the tallest mountain in Southern California, home to epic backpacking, grueling day hiking, even backcountry skiing—burned and still closed.

In January, I rode my bike up Trabuco Canyon and into Holy Jim. “Trabuco” was Spanish for a kind of blunderbuss rifle, and in 1769 one of the soldiers of the expedition of Gaspar de Portolá left his weapon there, bestowing the name to the canyon we know today. Riding in the Santa Ana Mountains is grueling, steep, and rugged. Over 30 miles, I pedaled and hike-a-biked nearly 6,000 feet of vertical. Along the way, near the back of Holy Jim, I passed Yaeger Mesa, named for an ever-optimistic miner, Jacob Yaeger, today better known as the location where the last grizzly bear in California was shot. The mesa is a multi-acred patch of almost flat in mountains where there is no flat, except that carved by man, and it was near Yaeger that today’s fire started.

Around 9:30 Monday night, I drove to the top of a nearby highpoint and looked across the winking lights of the Capistrano Valley 15 miles to the Santa Anas. There, aglow and asmoke, was Holy Jim, looking for all the world like Mordor, its flames cupped and hidden by Bell Ridge. To the left, north, I saw more specks of orange light—too far up the mountains to be people, there were ember fires sparking across the range. I thought about that last bear, and I thought about all the animals that were fleeing or dead or in hiding. I thought I about the patches of poison oak I tiptoed past in January, and the trail sign I leaned my bike against, now gone. I thought about climate change and drought and that those trails may be lost for good, that this time things could different and that some losses are forever, and my heart ached. But then I stared a little longer through binoculars and watched the orange light deepen to burnt umber as a new line of flames fought to crest a ridge, and I thought, maybe once and for all: damn, but that’s beautiful.

Top and bottom photos by Steve Casimiro



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