Laguna Beach to Accept $1M State Grant for Wildfire Defense

Goats graze in a brushy area off Loretta Drive in Arch Beach Heights on Aug. 20. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach will accept a $1 million state grant in the coming weeks to complete fuel modification zones that will protect South Laguna neighborhoods from wildfires.

The Laguna Beach City Council voted last week to authorize Fire Chief Mike Garcia to execute the grant agreement with state officials. City staffers plan to remove 17.26 acres of brush along a 100-foot wide firebreak that stretches from Alta Loma Drive to Sunset Avenue. In addition to residential homes, the zones will protect Mission Hospital Laguna Beach and the South Coast Water District’s headquarters.

“We’re appreciative of the opportunity to receive that money in the state budget,” Garcia said. “It appears with the acceptance of this grant, that we’re two to three months away from some studies.”

City staffers will need to complete the necessary environmental review before they move forward on the project, which is expected to last for over three years, Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said. The state funding will flow through the California Department of Natural Resources.

Vegetation could be removed by goat herds or hand crews depending on whether sensitive species are involved.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s uncertain how the city will fund the $90,000 per year that’s needed to maintain the fuel modification zones after they’re completed. Mike Rohde, a wildland fire defense and fuels manager for the Laguna Beach Fire Department, told the Independent last year that brush will grow back to a dangerous condition within two years if this pruning isn’t consistently maintained.

Laguna Beach resident Tim Templeton said he and fellow members of the Disaster and Emergency Preparedness Committee encouraged the city to get a full-time staffer to help prepare future grant applications related to wildfire mitigation. City officials decided not to open that position due to other priorities.

“This would be an opportunity to invest in something that would bring money back and pay for itself,” Templeton said.

Laguna Beach’s former emergency operations coordinator, Jordan Villwock, applied for wildfire mitigation grants before his departure to the Ontario Fire Department. The city hasn’t announced his replacement yet.

One roadblock to getting fuel modification zones approved are the voluminous reports required by state law, including a review of how clearing brush could hurt endangered and threatened wildlife and plants, hydrogeological conditions, and archaeological sites. City leaders need to prioritize scaling these obstacles to trimming back wildfire fuels to protect lives and property, Templeton said.

“If you don’t have the homes, people aren’t paying property taxes,” he said. “We need to make sure things that are generating revenue are going to be kept going but we also need programs to pay for themselves.”

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