Coastal Commission OKs Laguna Canyon brush clearing for wildfire defense

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Goats graze in an electrified pen off Loretta Drive in Arch Beach Heights on Aug. 20. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach expects to break ground within two weeks on 44 acres of fuel modification zones that will trim back brush around neighborhoods along Laguna Canyon Road to protect structures from future wildfires.

The California Coastal Commission cleared the way on May 13 for the 100-foot-wide fire break around the Anneliese Schools, Laguna College of Art + Design, Sun Valley Drive, Castle Rock Road, Canyon Acres Drive, Sawdust Art Festival, and Art-A-Fair.

“We believe that there will be sufficient space to protect public health and safety,” Mike Rohde, wildland fire defense program manager for the Laguna Beach Fire Department, said in a phone interview Monday.

Laguna Beach plans to deploy goat herds to graze areas overgrown with non-native plant species and hand crews to selectively trim back vegetation in areas of high habitat value for threatened and endangered species. The Fire Department’s goal to complete the work by Sept. 1, which typically lands before the Santa Ana winds restart. The Laguna Canyon fuel modification and restoration project has received $4.3 million in funding, including a $3.6 million state grant, according to a letter from Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mark Garcia.

The level of vegetation growth in Laguna Canyon right now is “pretty high,” especially among the non-native grasses that whip fast-moving wildfires, Rohde said.

The Commission denied an appeal from Laguna Beach residents Mark and Sharon Fudge who argued, among other points, that city officials failed to consider alternatives that would have been gentler on natural and visual resources, especially open space.

“We are sensitive to the fact that there are important safety issues that will need to be balanced and we respect the process that must follow,” the Fudges wrote in their appeal. “However, the City’s choice to approve the project as proposed did not take any alternative thinning or removal into consideration.”

In their appeal, the Fudges also pointed to a 2013 report by then Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse who claimed that many of the cIty’s canyons are too steep for either the goats or hand crews and that some of the proposed fuel modification zones are in areas that have experienced significant landslides and that city officials may need to consider slope stability if vegetation was removed from the site.

Sharon Fudge declined to comment Tuesday on the Coastal Commission’s denial of her appeal.

The appeal of the Laguna Canyon fuel modification zones is the latest example of how fire-prone California cities eager to protect firefighters, residents, and multi-million properties are running into opposition from environmental advocates asking for more oversight from state officials.

Laguna Beach argues that its consultation with the Laguna Canyon Foundation demonstrated its commitment to mitigating the environmental impacts of its wildfire defense. The Coastal Commission found “no substantial issue” with the city’s plan in its review of the Fudges’ appeal.

Penelope Milne, president of Laguna Beach Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization, offered a measured reaction to the Coastal Commission decision in a phone interview Tuesday.

“We really appreciate Mark and Sharon’s fact-based advocacy for a fair process,” she said. “Laguna Beach’s local coastal plan is woefully out of date and that comes back to bite us again and again.”

On the other hand, fuel modification is important to all Laguna Beach residents but it’s particularly important to people who live in Laguna Canyon. For that reason, Milne’s organization was glad to see this project move forward.

The 1993 Laguna Fire brought flames within about 20 feet of Milne’s house. An intrepid neighbor fought off the blaze with a garden hose until a firefighter came by and doused them with a firehose.

“For those who see the wildlands and the critters that live here as their neighbors damaging wildlands to protect our homes is a tough choice but we’re also terrified about wildfire,” Milne said.

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