By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
A contingent of Laguna Beach city officials toured the town of Paradise, California, on Jan. 23 to witness the devastation caused by the Camp Fire last November and to learn how the city might better prevent and react to its next wildfire.
Mayor Bob Whalen, City Manager John Pietig, Fire Chief Mike Garcia, Police Capt. Jeff Calvert, Emergency Operations Coordinator Jordan Villwock, and Utility Undergrounding Program Manager Wade Brown made the journey to the Camp Fire’s burn area that saw 86 people killed and more than 18,000 structures destroyed.
“The devastation is heartbreaking and the enormity of it is overwhelming,” Whalen said. “You can’t get a sense of that unless you’re up there and you’re driving for 20 minutes and all you see are chimneys and burned-out stoves, washers, and dryers.”
Laguna Beach officials met with Butte County Fire Department Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins, who observed the Camp Fire from helicopter 30 minutes after it started. Hawkins described how the extremely high wind speed made firefighting with aircraft ineffective.
Even though Paradise is surrounded by an inland pine forest, its topography shares some similarities with Laguna Beach. The town has three roads for people to evacuate and has box canyons, like Bluebird Canyon, where there is only one road out. Paradise also has many dead-end streets like those in Laguna Beach.
Villwock said firefighters in Paradise encountered roads that were blocked by downed utility poles, live power lines, and trees. A couple of firefighters had to use front-loader tractors to push debris out of the road so residents could drive out.
“They dealt with thousands of utility lines down and some were blocking evacuation routes,” Villwock said. “All you see now are chimneys of houses that are left and new utility poles because they had to replace them.”
Unlike Paradise, Laguna Beach has neighboring cities that could provide mutual-aid from their police departments to Laguna Beach Police in the event of a wildfire. The small mountain enclave only had a few officers on duty to help evacuate residents when the Camp Fire started.
One of the biggest failures of the Camp Fire is that many residents didn’t receive emergency alerts from Butte County, or received them too late because the fire moved so fast.
Laguna Beach was the first city in Orange County to implement a wireless emergency alert system that allows city officials to send an Amber Alert-style message to cell phones pinging cell towers in the city limits. The County of Orange can also make emergency calls via AlertOC to all landlines in Laguna Beach and to residents’ cell phone numbers who opt-in to receive alerts. AlertOC currently holds 17,430 registered numbers, but only about 19 percent of those are cell numbers, Villwock said. If residents are unsure if their cell number is registered or they recently changed their cell number, they’re encouraged to sign up at alertoc.com.
The Laguna Beach City Council recently formed a Fire Safety Subcommittee to conduct a comprehensive review of the city’s emergency evacuation and response plans. The subcommittee will meet in private with city staffers for the first time Feb. 8 and is expected to report its recommendations to the City Council in June. Whalen said the subcommittee will likely discuss improving evacuation routes, vegetation management, and staging firefighting equipment on high-wind days.