In order to understand laser-induced damage in glass, we subjected engineered SiO2 thin films containing sub-micron gold inclusions to high fluences, and observed the results using several means of analysis. We found decoupling in time between the emission of gold and that of silicon with samples containing gold spheres of diameter 3 nm. We have analyzed the changes in the silica optical absorption at 1064 nm, using photothermal deflection microscopy. We find, upon exceeding a sharp fluence threshold, a thousand-fold increase in absorption of the silica matrix around the inclusion. We conclude that ions from the inclusion permeate the surrounding silica, and form a highly absorbent mixture. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.