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Fire Reignites Disaster Planning

Disaster planning organizer Sandi Cain predicts a large turnout for a meeting next week in Laguna Beach for her Wesley Drive neighborhood as a result of Sunday’s brush fire.

She’s not alone in seeing a spike in fire awareness. Over three days this week, more than 50 requests from residents for consultations over weed abatement poured into the department, said fire Division Chief Dan Stefano.

Their concerns stems from a very visible five-acre blaze on a south Laguna hillside, squelched in a matter of hours by an aggressive effort from a swarm of 150 firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter. Witnesses say they heard a loud noise, possibly from an exploding transformer, about an hour before seeing smoke about 11:30 a.m. along a ridgeline west of the Laguna Terrace mobile home park.

Investigators don’t expect to reach a concluding cause before next week, Fire Chief Kris Head said Wednesday.

One firefighter was injured and no structures burned, though authorities initially asked for a voluntary evacuation a quarter mile around the park, which affected about 5,000 people.

But Cain put into action some of the emergency planning practices she models leading the so-called Wesley Fire Protection Zone. “My 15-minute evacuation test took 25 minutes,” said Cain, a Laguna Terrace resident who on Sunday was stowing valuables in her vehicle along with four cats. Her disaster preparation workshop is set for Thursday, Sept. 27, in the park clubhouse.

Cain also saw visiting engine companies douse the blaze by tapping into some of the  park’s 22 “wharf heads,” which she recently located on a map for park manager Jim Lawson as part of her volunteer preparedness duties. Cain was initially alarmed to learn the smaller stand-pipes lack the capacity of standard ones “since we’re surrounded by open space,” she said.

Even so, “we had more than enough water capacity for what we had,” Stefano said of Sunday’s blaze. And additional lines from municipal hydrants at the park’s perimeter could have been deployed if needed, he added, noting that neither the fire department nor the water district has the authority to require the private park to upgrade to larger hydrants which would be required of current development.

The park conformed to regulations in effect at the time of construction in 1956, said Lawson, who was called at 11:37 a.m. Sunday about a power outage. He has no doubt the exploding transformer that let loose live wires ignited the fire. This week, Edison removed the poles and transformer from the hillside and restored power, he said.

“We made a very aggressive request for resources and got a lot of people on it quickly,” said Chief Head. “It was small, but it had a lot of potential.”

Most residents appeared to ignore the evacuation order: scores of people, many with cameras and phones, lined Coast Highway, Terry Road and Nyes Place and gathered on balconies, fascinated by the ground battle before them. Some grabbed garden hoses to wet rooftops and landscaping.

The fire’s visibility alongside Coast Highway prompted more than 400 calls over four hours, said a desk clerk, many of them from people worried about a repeat of the 1993 firestorm that consumed 400 homes.

With a light onshore breeze and lower temperatures, the slow-moving blaze scorched an undeveloped hillside behind St. Catherine of Siena’s parish school and crept west towards homes at the end of Rounsevel Terrace, east towards the Laguna Terrace park and north towards homes uphill on Nyes Place.

A downed utility line was visible on the charred hillside and a utility pole was visibly smoking Sunday.

To guard against flare-ups and the potential for flames to advance on homes overhanging the hillside far up Nyes Place, firefighters remained in the area throughout the night and next day, said Lynette Round, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority, which deployed trucks, hand crews and a water-dropping helicopter.

The injured firefighter was working on the steep hillsides when he reported not feeling well and was evacuated, Round said.

Multiple fire trucks lined up protectively on Nyes Place, their hoses connected to hydrants and ready to defend the uphill homes, said Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger, who toured the scene with Head and City Manager John Pietig.

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