Laguna Beach braces amid severe wildfire conditions

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Smoke blowing off the Silverado Fire filled the sky above Laguna Beach on Monday. Photo courtesy of Bryce Reif

Laguna Beach escaped a local Red Flag Warning without incident on Tuesday as smoke billowed from a pair of wildfires burning Orange County’s inland foothills.

Tuesday was also the 27th anniversary of the Laguna Fire that destroyed 366 homes and burned over 17,000 acres of open space.

The Laguna Beach Fire Department staffed two additional engine companies during the Red Flag incident and stepped up fire patrols with police officers, driving through neighborhoods and on fire roads throughout the city, Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. Laguna Beach also called in an additional dispatcher to assist with 911 calls, including reports of smoke coming from the Silverado Fire.

“We had a concern about embers even though it’s miles away,” Garcia said.

At 7 a.m. on Monday, a Laguna Beach battalion chief joined the first strike team, manned by smaller Orange County fire departments, to fight the Silverado Fire. They’ve been on the blaze ever since, Garcia said.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District transitioned to distance learning at all school sites on Tuesday due to the extreme weather conditions, poor air quality, and unpredictable power outages, according to a post on the district’s Facebook page.

Following the closure of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, volunteers with Laguna Beach Community Emergency Response Team were dispatched at 7 a.m. on Tuesday to educate visitors at the Alta Laguna Park trailhead, Laguna Beach CERT director Sonny Myers said. The volunteers were released by Emergency Operations Coordinator Brendan Manning after about an hour due to calmer than expected winds.

“We were prepared to stay longer if the Red Flag was extended,” Myers said. “My push is to get people prepared for their emergencies.”

On Wednesday morning, Myers personally delivered five emergency backpacks. He handed off another six to a family handing them out to family members the previous day.

The emergency kit includes an AM/FM hand-crank radio with flashlight and cell phone charger, 4-in-1 gas and water utility shut off tool, glow sticks, biohazard bags, nitrile gloves, N95 mask, 54-piece first aid kit, duct tape, emergency poncho, solar blanket, and a personal hygiene kit. The backpack also contains emergency plan templates and disaster-specific information.

Laguna Beach has sold over 1,000 emergency backpacks since November 2018, Myers said.

“You don’t have to wait for a fire or earthquake to order a backpack—the time do it is before,” he said.

Laguna Beach CERT hasn’t been able to hold classes to train a new cohort of volunteers this year because of COVID-19. CERT leaders will host a Zoom meeting on Wednesday as a training refresher for about 45 current members on how to report vegetation fires by noting how big an acre is, which direction the fire is burning, and where it’s located. This will help them be more effective while they’re posted during Red Flag events at Moulton Meadows, Alta Laguna, and a water reservoir in North Laguna.

Myers urged residents to be skeptical of information from unofficial sources on NextDoor and Facebook, pointing instead to social media channels hosted by Laguna Beach public safety agencies, Orange County Fire Authority, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“The information is out there,” Myers said. “It’s how you choose to use it and follow guidelines that matter.”

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