October 3, 2019
San Elijo Lagoon
Solana Beach CA

Hilary and I were watching the 6 o’clock National News Thursday evening when the phone rang. Caller ID popped up on the TV screen-so handy. It was Brittany. Hilary answered. After about 10 seconds Hilary screams “WHAT!! Casey, turn on the local news. There’s a fire in the lagoon! It’s by Jimmy’s Bench!”

I fumbled with the remote and went to local news. Fires are big news in our town. Helicopter footage filled the screen and sure enough a small portion of the south lagoon was engulfed in flames. We spend a lot of time in there and I could immediately tell it was very close to Jimmy’s memorial bench. As I got up close to the screen I yelled to Hilary. “The fire is all around his bench!

Screen shot of TV News Coverage

Here’s a link to an article with local TV footage of the fire. https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/SD-Brush-Fire-Encinitas-San-Elijo-Lagoon-Cal-Fire-North-San-Diego-County-562125211.html

And here ‘s a screen shot I took of the local news coverage. The yellow arrow points to Jimmy’s bench. The fire pretty much encircled it.

Screen Grab from TV News footage. Arrow points to Jimmy’s Bench

Our good friends Penny and Frank live up on the hill and look down directly at the bench. Firefighters were lined up on their street ready to evacuate homes in case the fire spread. Fortunately, the wind was light and it did not.

The fire as seen from our friends’ house above the lagoon

The day after we lost Jimmy, we took a walk in the lagoon to find some respite from the tsunami of outpourings of grief: drop-ins, flower deliveries, phone calls, newspaper interview requests. It was on that walk Hilary and Brittany decided “We don’t want to visit Jimmy in a cemetery. Let’s place a bench in his memory here in the lagoon. He loved this place. We all do.”

With the gracious assistance of the folks at the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy (now known as the Nature Collective), we selected a location near the Rios St. trailhead with a beautiful view of the lagoon and ocean. After struggling for many weeks with what to say, Hilary suggested and we all enthusiastically agreed that we inscribe the bench with Jimmy’s own words from a letter he had written to Anthony Ortega, his mentor and saxophone teacher for eight years.


Our immediate concern with this fire was the safety of the nearby homes and their residents. Apparently the fire started (cause unknown) right behind the bench around 5:30 p.m. and by the time we tuned on the News the firefighters from Solana Beach, Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe had it pretty much under control before any structures were threatened.

I couldn’t tell from the fuzzy TV footage if the bench was OK. The fire was so close and it’s made from this plastic-artificial wood-pretty sturdy. I could see the bench was still standing but it looked like it might be sagging.

Hilary wanted to run down there right away, but we figured with the fire still going there was no way we’d get in there and….there was nothing we could do but pray it was OK.

The next morning we drove down to the trailhead. I clipped some white roses from our yard. There was a barricade and a pretty hard to miss sign.

Trail Closed

I said “Let’s go for it.” Hilary agreed “We do have a pretty good reason.”

As we made it to the bottom of a slight hill down to lagoon level, we saw a man coming toward us in a hard hat and neon colored-official looking vest. We said “Uh oh-busted.”

He gave us a smile and nice as can be asked us “Is the Trail Closed sign still up?”

We said “yes” and explained why we kind of ignored it.

He got all excited and whipped out his phone.

“Your bench is fine! It was the first one I checked. The firefighters did an amazing job of protecting it from the flames.”

He showed us the photo he had taken which focused on the inscription and the charred ground in the background. FOREVER FORTUNATE…FOREVER IN GRATITUDE.

“We’ll use this photo in our newsletter!”

[Photo courtesy of Nature Collective]

He looked at the roses in my hand and said “Go on ahead and visit your son’s bench. It’s OK. Place your flowers. It’s all good.”

We thanked him profusely. And wondered who he was. I noticed a decal on his hard hat-Nature Collective- or something like that. I’d look it up when I got home.

As we got near the bench the smell of smoke was strong. As we cleared the rise and the bench came into view, we were filled with joy. Jimmy’s bench was unharmed!! Every inch of ground behind the bench and running up the hill was burned to a crisp. We could tell the firefighters had cleared a large circle around the bench off all vegetation.

Firefighters were still on the scene and were tamping down hot spots. A fire hose was right behind the bench. One of the firefighters nearby watched us but didn’t scold us for being on an active fire scene. Perhaps that nice guy we ran into alerted them we were coming. We yelled “Thank you!!” He waved back.

We placed our flowers on the bench and said a prayer of gratitude.

The morning after. All is well. Firefighter in background, firehose near bench

Didn’t notice the light beam on the bench until I got back to the car and sent photos to Brittany and friends letting them know all was OK. Nice touch.

When I got home I checked out the Nature Collective website. Turns out the nice guy who gave us the OK to visit Jimmy’s Bench is Doug Gibson, the Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the outfit in charge of protecting the Lagoon. I’d read a lot about him, but never met him.

Doug Gibson, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of Nature Collective San Elijo Lagoon (Photo by Meghan Lanigan)

One of Brittany’s friends asked her “What do you think the significance is of the fire at Jimmy’s Bench,” and Brittany passed that one on to me.

“Well, I’m not sure, but there’s one thing that was in progress when that fire is said to have started….”

I’ll revisit that down the road.

We are FOREVER IN GRATITUDE to the brave and skilled firefighters with the Solana Beach, Encinitas and Rancho Santa Fe Fire Departments and the Nature Collective-San Elijo Lagoon.

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Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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