Coastal Commission OKs wildfire defense projects in Laguna Beach

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Natures Image landscapers Richard Aguirre (right) and Alberto Vargas trim invasive plants in August 2019 in Oro Canyon. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The California Coastal Commission recently approved a pair of new wildfire fuel modification projects in Laguna Beach, allowing city officials to inch forward with plans to build a chain of fire breaks.

Commissioners unanimously voted March 9 to approve emergency permits for a new project near Arch Beach Heights east of Barracuda Way and another north of Ocean Vista and south of K Street. About 10.51 acres are included and will largely be worked on by hand crews selectively removing invasive grasses while leaving native plants like crownbeard.

“This is the most sensibly designed fuel modification plan I have ever seen in the State. We’ve been working on this for years to get to this point,” Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth said.

Although the projects had been in the Commission’s pipeline for months, the ignition of the Emerald Fire last month appears to have provided Laguna Beach with new urgency to finally get them built.

Commissioner Caryl Hart said she appreciates Laguna Beach’s work to address its wildfire hazard risk because she was responsible for the vegetation management program in Sonoma County, a region that has seen devastating fires claim homes and wildlife habitat.

“I don’t think you can overstate the impacts of these extreme fire events. It’s not healthy fire, it’s extreme fire. That destroys everything,” Hart said.

After some clarifying questions by Commission Chair Donne Brownsey, coastal staffers reassured the panel that sensitive habitat areas won’t be treated with the same slashing as the rest of the fuel modification zone. Laguna Beach will also restore 1.46 acres off Driftwood Drive as mitigation for anticipated direct impacts to 2.92 acres of very-high value habitat. California gnatcatchers are among the vulnerable species that could be disturbed.

“We think we’ve landed on a mitigation ratio that is completely fair and based on the unique circumstances of this city and the notion too that these are repair and maintenance projects. These are existing subdivisions. These aren’t new developments. So fire clearance has been occurring around these areas,” Ainsworth said.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation has been contracted by city officials to provide biologists who will monitor crews and flag plants that should not be taken.

The open space area known as Hobo Aliso Ridge is home to a California Lilac hybrid with white flowers found nowhere else, biologists say.

Hobo Aliso Ridge includes a conservation easement held by the California Coastal Conservancy, which allocated $15,000 in 2020 to pursue a site analysis that would pave the way for the property to be persevered in perpetuity, according to a coastal staff report. These funds were derived from money collected in Coastal Commission enforcement actions. Environmentalists argued it’s nonsensical for the state panel to reverse course after this investment.

Laguna Beach fire officials have failed to require homeowners to cut down highly flammable plants like palm trees in their yards, long-time coastal activity Penny Elia said.

“This type of fuel load adjacent to structures is rampant throughout Laguna Beach. Given the Fire Department’s concern over structure damage, one has to question why they aren’t focused on what I call roman candles. Instead, they focus on [Environmentally Sensitive Habitat],” she said.

The Laguna Beach Fire Department is working concurrently with homeowners on improving defensible space on their properties, said Mike Rohde, Laguna Beach wildland fire defense consultant and a retired Orange County Fire Authority captain.

“If someone maintains a hazard still in their backyard yes that threatens their own home and their neighbors’. That’s why it’s so important for the City to influence those areas and that’s why we’re reaching out. We do need the entire distance to make it work,” Rohde said.

The City Council voted to approve changes to city law requiring homeowners to remove dead vegetation and trim trees and shrubs.

As of July 1, 2021, Assembly Bill 38 requires all homes sold within the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone must undergo a fire safety inspection report. If a city or county hasn’t adopted its own regulations, homeowners must comply with strict guidelines created by the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, which includes the removal of all flammable ground cover and shrubs within 30 feet of all structures.

In September, the City Council adopted wildfire-resistant landscaping rules that city officials argue will help prevent flames from jumping to homes and give firefighters room to work safely. Homebuyers can commit to completing all the necessary maintenance within a year of closing escrow.

Elia is pessimistic the City’s defensible requirements will have any meaningful impact during future wildfires, given they have watered down CalFire’s requirements.

“They’ve done that to coddle the wealthy and entitled homeowners of Laguna Beach and instead go into the environmentally sensitive habitat and destroy it,” Elia said.

Laguna Beach resident Joanne McMahon said its wonderful that new fuel modification projects can move forward. However, she said a lot of work remains unfinished, specifically on removing invasive, highly-flammable Arundo donax from lower Aliso Canyon.

Since 2018, McMahon has pleaded with officials at city, county, and state agencies about the fire hazard in the county-owned watershed near her Aliso Circle home. For now, the work appears to be waiting for a hearing before the Coastal Commission.

“It’s just a bureaucratic nightmare and nobody really wants to own it,” she said.

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