Laguna Beach and a retired Orange County Fire Authority battalion chief who oversaw the construction of wildfire breaks have quietly parted ways after five and a half years.
Mike Rohde played a central role in managing the permitting, environmental analysis, and labor-intensive endeavor to create defensible space between wild brush and Laguna Beach homes. City leaders have earmarked $8.5 million, including about $4 million in state funding, to complete the work which found new urgency in May after the Coastal Fire destroyed multimillion homes in Laguna Niguel.
Laguna Beach’s innovative approach to working with biologists to maintain environmentally-sensitive habitat while clearing invasive species earned praise from California Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth, who described it as “the most sensibly designed fuel modification plan I have ever seen.”
In November 2021, the City Council approved a contract amendment with Rohde & Associates that would have extended services through March 2023. The revised contract was worth up to $201,600. The parties stopped working together on July 25, a city spokesperson said.
Rohde declined to comment for this story.
Planned wildfire fuel modification zones in South Laguna, Bluebird Canyon, and Park Avenue remain on track with their previously established schedules, city spokesperson Cassie Walder wrote in an email Tuesday.
“South Laguna and Park Avenue zones just completed their first phase and Bluebird zone is proceeding at the federal level with environmental clearance. In addition, maintenance of all existing fuel modification zones is on schedule…” Walder wrote.
Following Rohde’s departure, day-to-day administration of the multi-million dollar program was handed to Jeremy Frimond, special projects manager and assistant to City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. He leads a team of consultants that include the Laguna Canyon Foundation and Nature’s Image.
Laguna Beach Fire Chief Niko King and other Fire Department staffers still oversee the program, Walder said.
In another consequential move earlier this year, the Community Development Department—under the Fire Chief’s oversight—is processing the review and permitting of wildfire-resistant landscaping for new construction projects and the annual weed abatement program. That work was previously done by fire marshal James Brown who retired June 1 after five years with the City.
Retired Laguna Beach fire chief Mike Garcia said he’s not privy to why Rohde and the City parted ways but was sad to learn he’s no longer employing his unique skillset to make Laguna Beach a safer place.
“Mike is very passionate about what he does, using his experience and science in putting on this program,” Garcia said. “Although it wasn’t 100% accepted by the community during his tenure, we at the Fire Department saw less criticism and more praise—and still accomplished our goals—as compared to prior years.”
During his contract with Laguna Beach, Rohde regularly updated the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee on his progress to harden the City against wind-whipped wildfires. He served as part of the incident command team for the 1993 Laguna Fire.
“A decorated former battalion chief at OCFA, Mike is well regarded in the fire safety community. He did a very effective job,” emergency preparedness committee chairman Matt Lawson said Tuesday. “The committee was impressed with his understanding of the issues with the apparent results we were able to achieve.”
Lawson added that he was not aware that the daily administration—including required updates to state officials—for the state-financed fire mitigation grants is underway within the City Manager’s Office.
“Clearly, it’s the prerogative of city management to execute programs that have been approved by this council. The concern of the committee is that this be executed well,” Lawson said.
Over the last year, Rohde and city staffers ran into headwinds in with some environmentalists, who argued the City’s approach to wildfire fuel modification ran afoul of the California Coastal Act and Endangered Species Act. Despite those concerns, the Coastal Commission has cleared Laguna Beach’s fuel modification projects to move forward.
A comprehensive update on the status of the City’s fuel modification program will be provided at the Oct. 4 city council meeting.