Blaze Stokes Old Fears

Larry Silva Jr. works on a replacement pole on Arroyo Drive; a falling tree snapped its predecessor, crushing a a car nearby.
Larry Silva Jr. works on a replacement pole on Arroyo Drive; a falling tree snapped its predecessor, crushing a a car nearby.

Initially, Penny Milne thought the sound she heard outside her Arroyo Drive home was heavy rain. After a startling explosion followed, likened by another bystander to cannon fire, she rocketed outside to see the commotion for herself.

Milne conceded she had trouble absorbing the scene of destruction that now trapped her inside her yard’s fenced perimeter: a blue subcompact in the driveway lay buried beneath a fallen tree, a car parked at the curb was crushed under a snapped power pole, utility lines snaked across the road and the air resounded with shouts of “fire.”

Emergency personnel swarmed to the neighborhood rapidly. “They chased it down pretty good. It could have been hugely worse,” said Milne on Monday, July 6, three days after a toppled tree snagged power lines and ignited a brush fire on the hillside bordering Laguna Canyon Road.

Five water and retardant-dropping aircraft, 150 fire fighters and a light onshore breeze held the afternoon blaze on Friday, July 3, to less than 15 acres. One firefighter suffered an ankle injury.

The circumstances served “as a dry run for a bigger disaster,” according to Milne, president of Canyon Alliance Neighborhoods Defense Organization, a confederation of Laguna Canyon neighborhood groups.

Milne in particular, but her neighbors as well, were trapped within their block-long dead-end street off Canyon Acres Drive by downed power lines and were without cell service, said Milne, who intends to press city officials to remedy those matters in future disaster planning.

Top leaders got their own first hand look. The mayor, police and fire chief and city manager all responded to the scene, and Edison crews worked through the night to restore power by the following day, Milne said.

From the city’s vantage point, Edison poles caused the fire, even though trees falling on private property pulled down power lines, fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse said.

While 35 customers initially lost power, a total of 100 were affected due to repairs, said Edison spokesman Paul Griffo, who could not provide a repair cost estimate.

The towering Torrey pine that started the chain reaction fell on a heavily wooded lot owned by Vern Spitaleri. “It looked healthy and fine,” said a man using a chain saw there Monday. He declined to identify himself.

An unfinished straw-bale house under construction on the property by Kris Spitaleri has been the source of complaints from neighbors for several years, “but none of those issues were a factor in the fire,” City Manager John Pietig said.

It’s unclear yet if drought, disease or lack of maintenance uprooted the tree, Pietig said. “If utilities and poles were underground, there would be less risk from falling trees,” he noted.

For the first time, Mayor Bob Whalen this week called on Edison to remove its power poles citywide to lower fire risk.

That would be a welcome improvement to resident Randy Bader, whose Arroyo Drive home survived the arson-lit 1993 fire due in part to lucky topography. Last Friday, as he rode a bike toward home along Laguna Canyon Road, he heard what sounded like cannon fire and then saw a swirl of smoke and flames on the opposite side of the road. After he yelled to a passerby to call 911, he watched a tiny flame roar up the hillside in under four minutes and watched with admiration the swift response of firefighting resources.

“We were the only fire going on,” explained LaTendresse.

In case the situation deteriorated, Bader said he informed his adult kids to put into action the family’s post-’93 disaster reunification plan: meet behind the toy store on Main Beach.

Though the precaution proved unnecessary, Bader did suffer a minor loss anyway. The fire-caused closure of Laguna Canyon Road blocked the arrival of guests he had invited to his house prior to that night’s opening of the Festival of Arts, where he is an exhibitor.

Instead, Bader earned his neighbors’ goodwill by sharing the fixings at the next day’s Fourth of July block party.


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