Drought Prompts Laguna to Act on Fire Safety

Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse
Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse

With the coming anniversary of the 1993 Laguna Beach firestorm as the backdrop, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to step up fire safety measures by expanding fuel modification zones and upping fines in no smoking areas.

In a report to the council, Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse described current conditions as a “critical fire season” due to scant rainfall at 50 percent of normal levels for the last two years. “The hillsides are dead,” said LaTendresse.

Proving the danger, 1,000 more fires have already scorched California this year than last year, he said. And Laguna firefighters, heeding mutual aid calls, have already responded to five “major vegetation” fires outside the county, compared to one such response in 2012.

While creating fuel breaks offers just one line of defense against fires, La Tendresse pointed out that firefighters cited ample defensible space as the reason no homes were lost in May’s Springs fire near Camarillo.

With that aim in mind, firefighters identified 12 areas within city limits where fuel breaks could provide more defensible space around homes, though the department lacks the funding to pursue them all.

Fuel modification zones refer to areas with graduated levels of vegetation along with some kind of irrigation system, while fire breaks refer to bulldozed areas. Laguna’s zones resemble fuel breaks mostly, where vegetation is cut back and brush removed to reduce fuel for fires and lower its temperature.

LaTendresse said $126,000 previously allocated to this project by the City Council would likely cover the costs to modify just one area.

As an example, he cited the $110,000 cost of a fuel break on 6.9 acres in Oro Canyon in 2011, as well as ongoing maintenance of $5,000 a year. Using goats to chomp through the dense growth costs about $625 an acre, while ground crews run up a tab of $1,000 to $2,100 an acre. Goats offer an advantage of ground crews in that they are quiet, consume their debris and work in all weather and on weekends. Ground crews use gasoline-powered Weedwackers that generate noise and emissions. They also have to cart away the cut vegetation and only work weekdays.

Forced to select one area to start, the fire department recommends Nyes Canyon, in the area south of Alisos Avenue up to Balboa Avenue. The Oro Canyon fuel break created in 2011 already provides defensible space in the area below Quivera Street, north of Del Mar and west of Santa Ana St. The new project would complete the protection for the entire upper Arch Beach Heights neighborhood.

LaTendresse said the Nyes Canyon area is comprised of private parcels owned by one person. The unidentified property owner supports the department’s concept, said Greg Vail, who appeared on the owner’s behalf.

Matt Lawson, a member of the city’s disaster preparedness committee, said the group supports the fire department’s decision, but urged other measures as well such as regulations to temporarily limit parking on narrow streets to allow fire engines access during high fire conditions. Such regulations would be helpful in a major fire as Laguna’s fire department will draw on assistance from firefighters unfamiliar with the city’s streets or hydrants, Lawson said.

LaTendresse said property owners need to do their part by clearing their own yards of fuel.

Getting approval for an additional fuel modification zone could take six months since it requires complying with the California Environmental Quality Act to obtain a coastal development permit, LaTendresse said. That requires securing Planning Commission approval and completing a detailed biological report that maps out any endangered plants or animal habitats and outlines measures to protect them, he said.

This slow timeline frustrated the council members, gripped by a sense of urgency.

Council member Bob Whalen reiterated an earlier suggestion that staff draft a defensible space ordinance. He also suggested streamlining the regulatory process for fuel breaks and putting it under the same umbrella as undergrounding efforts, and Mayor Kelly Boyd agreed.

“This could take us down,” agreed Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, who called for a three-year plan to establish all 12 proposed fuel breaks.

“I really hope that we can give you more money to go forward,” Council member Toni Iseman said, referring to creating more fuel breaks. She also pointed out the need to guard against human-caused blazes with signs and fines suggested asking local nurseries to not stock highly combustible plants.

Besides approving a Nyes Canyon fuel break, the council asked the department for a three year plan to establish the other suggested fuel breaks, to increase no smoking signs and raise the fine for smokers who light up in prohibited areas to $1,000 from $50.


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