Laguna Beach holds breath, again, for Coastal Fire

Cutline: Hikers and bikers observe the Coastal Fire from a fire road between Old Top of the World and Moulton Meadows. Photo by Mike Sweeney

A fast-moving vegetation fire that started in Aliso Canyon and spread into a Laguna Niguel neighborhood had consumed about 200 acres by Thursday.

The Orange County Fire Authority had no update on containment of the Coastal Fire on Thursday morning. Over 20 homes have been damaged but damage assessment teams will get an exact count, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said Wednesday.

A firefighter was injured on the fire line and was taken to a local hospital for treatment, OCFA Assistant Chief of Operations TJ McGovern said Thursday.

The initial 911 call at 2:44 p.m. reported the fire in a patch of brush about 50 feet in diameter in an area of Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park near the South Orange County Wastewater Authority treatment plant, McGovern said. It had grown to between a half-acre and one acre by the time firefighters arrived at the scene. The blaze then quickly raced up a hillside into steep terrain covered in thick, dry vegetation.

“The winds we experienced [Wednesday] are normal winds. The big difference is the vegetation in our canyons, state, and throughout the West is so dry that it’s not taking much for it to burn,” Fennessy said.

On Thursday, the County of Orange declared a local emergency because of the Coastal Fire allowing additional equipment, personnel, and funding to be pushed into the burn area. Fire agencies from across Southern California are already supplementing local crews that have been at work for 24 hours.

Laguna Beach fire chief Mike Garcia recorded a statement on Twitter to assure the community that Laguna Beach is safe Wednesday night.

“We don’t expect any changes but we want all of our residents to remain vigilant and be prepared, be aware. If we have a weather change, if there’s any change in the fire, we will put out information and notifications. We want you to be able to react quickly,” Garcia said.

Aliso Canyon and The Ranch at Laguna Beach were evacuated, according to an alert issued to Laguna Beach residents around 3:26 p.m on Wednesday.

“Just as a precaution, police and firefighters evacuated the property,” Kurt Bjorkman, general manager of The Ranch at Laguna Beach said through a spokesperson.

The Coastal Wastewater Treatment Plant has not seen any service outages despite the fire’s proximity, said Betty Burnett, general manager of the South Orange County Wastewater Authority.

“Our plant is continuing to run but it’s running on generated power. We don’t see that there is any harm to the plant at this time,” Burnett said.

The Aliso Canyon facility treats and disposes of sewage for over 500,000 homes and businesses in South County. As critical infrastructure, the treatment plant has been identified for years as a priority for fire protection.

SOCWA staffers who safely evacuated Wednesday were escorted back onto the property by law enforcement officers for an inspection and no staff stayed overnight Wednesday, Burnett added. The agency is remotely monitoring the treatment plant’s operation and firefighters’ containment progress.

“We’re super appreciative of their efforts to respond,” she said.

The Laguna Beach Police Department issued evacuation warnings for residents in the Balboa Nyes (Portafina) Neighborhood around 4:30 p.m. These residents were encouraged to prepare family members and pets to evacuate in case of an evacuation order. The warning was lifted by 8:25 p.m., according to a city press release.

Mayor Sue Kempf commended the excellent response from Laguna Beach fire, police, and public works departments as well as the Fire Authority on Wednesday. From Aswut Trail near Moulton Meadows Park, she observed firefighting helicopters taking on water from the city-owned HeloPod, a 5,000-gallon tank resembling a shipping container that automatically refills as a helicopter sucks up water with an onboard snorkel.

“There were helicopters refilling every three to four minutes,” Kempf said. “When you see it in real-time, it’s so impressive.”

On Thursday, The Orange County Sheriff’s Department maintained evacuation orders for about 900 Laguna Niguel homes in the area of Pacific Island Drive, Coronado Pointe, and Vista Montemar.

Multiple helicopters and CalFire planes attacked the blaze into Wednesday evening, according to flight tracker ADS-B Exchange. A very large retardant tanker also flew in from Lancaster to assist the effort. The Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Anaheim fire departments are among those providing engines and firefighters.

Orange County Sup. Lisa Bartlett underscored this was the second wildfire in her district within the last three months. The Coastal Fire has eclipsed the 154-acre Emerald Fire that broke out Feb. 10 and smoldered for four days,

“It’s not easy when you see people’s homes on fire but we have a good team,” Bartlett said.

The Laguna Beach Community Emergency Response Team was not activated Wednesday, sources said.

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