Fire Risks Fuel New Safety Measures

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Red flag fire-danger warnings will usher in a new challenge along the narrow, twisting streets of Laguna Beach’s Diamond Crestview neighborhood: a temporary no-parking ban and the risk of being towed.

To better ensure that fire engines will not be impeded by parked cars, the City Council adopted a pilot program to test limited parking restrictions during extreme fire conditions, one of three recommendations proposed by the city’s disaster preparedness committee that Council members unanimously approved on Tuesday.

In order to keep people out of high-risk ignition zones, Laguna officials will also seek county approval to close both Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park on red flag days, as designated by the National Weather Service.

Finally, they endorsed new and improved signage identifying emergency access routes, intended for outside engine companies that are often enlisted to battle major blazes.

All three items emerged from research by a fire risk mitigation subcommittee. “I think it is fair to say that we are about a spark and a gust away from a serious problem,” said committee member Matt Lawson, who lives in the Diamond Crestview neighborhood.

The frequency of days where red-flag conditions prevail is increasing in coastal Orange County, from two days in 2010, to three in 2011, and seven in 2012 and 2013, said Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. So far this year, five have been declared and next week’s warning conditions may escalate to red flag status, he said.

Los Angeles and Pasadena imposed parking restrictions on streets bordered by wildland in 2005 and 2009, respectively, subcommittee members learned. Los Angeles experienced several brush fires where firefighters attested to improved access as a result of the restrictions, LaTendresse said.

Before recommending a broader program in Laguna, the subcommittee urged a tryout of red flag parking restrictions in one neighborhood to see how well it works. They chose the 100-home Diamond Crestview area because of its difficult access, but small study area.

The restrictions will not take effect until residents share their input, receive a brochure and signs are posted, according to the staff report. Residents would be able to sign up for “red flag” notifications through a link on the city’s web site, according to the report.

“I think it’s something we need to try and see if we can make it work,” said Lawson. “Yes, there may be some inconvenience,” he admitted. “But losing your home to a fire can be inconvenient as well,” he insisted, adding that city officials should endorse steps to ensure safe conditions for firefighters defending homes.

LaTendresse highlighted two benefits of closing the parks on red flag days: personnel need not spend valuable time evacuating park patrons and the closure may keep out the inattentive person who can unintentionally start a fire.

Council member Toni Iseman asked for assurance that the measures would be enforced. LaTendresse provided it. The revised city budget included $30,000 to pay for signage, brochures and the implementation of the recommendations, he said. And parking enforcement would be deployed to the restricted streets on red flag days. Once the restrictions were properly noticed, cars would be ticketed and towed.

“I think these recommendations are no brainers,” said Council member Kelly Boyd, urging their speedy implementation. And, anticipating complaints about where people would park on red flag days, “tell people to get stuff out of their garage,” he suggested.


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