Laguna Beach advances Bluebird Canyon, Park Avenue fire breaks

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The Laguna Beach Fire Department aims to install wildfire fuel modification zones along both sides of Park Avenue between Hidden Valley Canyon Road and Wendt Terrace. Image courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach residents could see new fire breaks in Bluebird Canyon following Planning Commission approval Wednesday.

The Planning Commission approval marks a step forward in mitigating wildfire risk for 50 homes in Bluebird Canyon, fire officials said. State and federal grants would cover 75% of the $3 million fuel modification efforts along Bluebird Canyon Drive and Park Avenue. The project encompasses five sites totaling 25 acres and would connect with existing fire breaks.

Selected vegetation would be removed by hand crews within 100 feet of homes and roads, reducing the risk of wildfires potentially entering neighborhoods or house fires breaching the open space. This could reduce wildfire intensity by up to 75%, fire defense consultant Mike Rohde said.

The Laguna Beach Fire Department aims to install a group of wildfire fuel modification zones along Bluebird Canyon Drive between Morningside Drive and Cress Street. Image courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A wildfire could be “very destructive” for Bluebird Canyon without proper fire breaks, Rohde added. Park Avenue likewise remains a focus of mitigation efforts as it is an essential evacuation corridor for Top of the World. This project will include 50-foot breaks of thinned brush on both sides of the road.

In pursuing approvals for an Arch Beach Heights fuel modification zone, Laguna Beach recently reached an agreement with the California Coastal Commission on how to selectively remove invasive plants while leaving rare native plants.

Hand crews operate under the guidance of ecologists provided by the Laguna Canyon Foundation, ensuring that endangered plants and wildlife are protected.

The City will cover the cost of habitat restoration, which will be performed off-site under Coastal Commission guidance.

“[The Coastal Commission] have desired sites that they’ve expressed to us that we’re already looking at, and we’ll come to terms with one that meets everybody’s objectives and meets that agreement, develop the plan for it, and execute that plan hopefully rather soon,” Rohde said.

Commissioners Ken Sadler and Susan McLintock Whitin asked if clearing the vegetation could lead to erosion risks, to which Rohde responded, “It’s a risk in the business.”

The steep slopes of Bluebird Canyon have been susceptible to landslides in the past. The last occurred in 2005 when a south wall of the canyon collapsed and wiped out 12 to 15 homes.

Bluebird Farms co-owner Scott Tenney cited erosion as a reason for his hesitation in agreeing to the fire breaks.

“We’re cool with being a part of this,” Tenney said. “But we don’t want to substitute reducing wildfire risks and accepting increased debris flow risks on our property.”

Laguna largely prefers using hand crews over mechanical equipment to clear hillsides, which reduces erosion risk, Rohde said. Treatments like waddles, matting, and mulch are also being implemented elsewhere in the City to prevent open soil patches, which are especially susceptible to erosion from water flow. Goat grazing also continues in certain areas this year.

“The only places where we’re doing grazing is in the very lowest classes of habitat value. The higher habitat values is all hand crew work which allows us a very delicate, customized approach,” Rohde said.

Commissioner Jorg Dubin emphasized the urgency of the situation. The City is already operating under an extension, and further delay to study erosion in the canyon could lead to missing out on the grant funding altogether, Rohde said.

The Planning Commission voted 4-0-1 to approve the fire breaks, with Commissioner Steven Kellenberg abstaining due to residing within 500 feet of one of the fuel modification zones.

The initial clearing is expected to begin in July and would be maintained in perpetuity.

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