Laguna Beach’s wildfire mitigation plan still a work in progress

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An Orange County Fire Authority helicopter drops water on a vegetation fire off Laguna Canyon Road on June 12, 2020. Photo courtesy of Sassy Mackey.

More than a year after the Laguna Beach City Council approved a plan to mitigate the city’s very high wildfire risk, city officials have yet to complete many recommended programs.

The evacuation of 90,000 people from inland Orange County cities threatened by the Silverado and Blue Ridge fires offered new energy this week to Laguna Beach’s efforts to get ready for the next wildfire.

Some short- and mid-term wildfire safety projects were slowed down or delayed when city officials trimmed budgets in response to financial uncertainty prompted by the pandemic. In July, Laguna Beach projected a $11 million budget shortfall for the 2019-20 Fiscal Year—the actual revenue loss was totaled at nearly $7.5 million.

In 2018, Mayor Bob Whalen and Councilmember Sue Kempf launched a subcommittee’s months-long study on fire safety. This culminated in the City Council’s unanimous approval of a 132-page Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Report in July 2019. The report outlined 47 short, medium, and long-term measures to mitigate the city’s risk of wildfires and to enhance public safety.

“This report is a roadmap to reduce the risk of wildfire and protect lives in the event of a major fire such as we experienced in 1993,” Whalen said in a prepared statement. “I want to continue to work hard to implement the remaining components included in the report.”

The City Council voted on Oct. 13 to spend $53,000 on a HeloPod Dip Tank, a system that looks like a shipping container that can be remotely triggered by firefighting pilots to fill with up to 7,000 gallons of water. Orange County Fire Authority helicopters can lower a snorkel to suck up hundreds of gallons without having to land, power down, and take on water from a waiting firefighter crew.

Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said Tuesday that he doesn’t have a delivery date for the HeloPod but it expects the city to have it within a couple of weeks. At least one reason for the delay is the City Council tasked the Planning Commission with approving an exterior paint job that would blend in with the open space where it’s likely to be installed.

The City Council has earmarked enough money for a second HeloPod and directed city staff to continue searching for another location, possibly in South Laguna, where it might be installed.

The city report also acknowledged that during the early stages of an evacuation, delivering and setting up traffic control devices at key locations is a labor and time intensive task. Depending on the time of day a wildfire starts, city staff may not be available to do this work.

In light of this, the City Council recently appropriated $150,000 on Sept. 22 for barricades and signage to be permanently stored at key evacuation points, allowing a small number of employees to immediately implement the first phases of evacuation plans. Potential locations could include Coast Highway at Crown Valley Parkway, Coast Highway at Newport Coast Drive in the parking lot for the park, and Laguna Canyon Road at El Toro Road, according to the report.

As of Wednesday, city officials did not have a delivery date for the evacuation traffic control devices.

“We are waiting for the results of the evacuating modeling program to determine the best locations where the evacuation traffic barricades should be placed throughout the town in the neighborhoods,” Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said in a prepared statement. “Once complete, the items will be ordered and placed strategically. The Public Works Department is responsible for ordering them and will work with the Police Department, who is responsible for the evacuation, on strategically placing them.”

Dupuis expects a final draft of the evacuation model to be completed before the end of the year.

Matt Lawson, chair of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, has been among the most vocal advocates for the city to be expeditious in implementing the wildfire safety report’s recommendations. On Wednesday, he said he’s pleased with the current drumbeat, under the circumstances.

“City staff has been working extremely hard under very difficult circumstances since March to protect our community from multiple serious hazards: an elevated seasonal wildfire threat level on top of an unprecedented, lethal global pandemic,” Lawson wrote in an email. “I’m highly confident that staff will make this happen as quickly as they can. Please note that Council only appropriated funding a few weeks ago after the project was put on ‘hold’ back in April as part of the City having to deal with a sudden revenue shortfall due to [the] COVID-19 shutdown.”

One recent bright spot for Laguna Beach was the October test of its newly-expanded Outdoor Warning System. The system currently includes Long Range Acoustic Devices mounted on 13 buildings spread throughout town. The solar-powered devices were deployed to broadcast recorded messages for evacuations in case cell service is disabled during a disaster.

Before the test, everything about the system was theoretical—now it has proven capability to broadcast over large distances, said Brendan Manning, emergency operations coordinator for Laguna Beach.

“The expanded system is such a tremendous asset to the city,” Manning said. “The test allowed us to put people throughout the city. We can definitively say where the gaps are. The volume and clarity of the message surprised us.”

About half of the $1.2 million outdoor warning system has been deployed so far. Building plans are in the works for sites at the City Yard, Bluebird Canyon, St. Catherine of Siena School, Aliso Beach, and four water district reservoir tanks throughout the city.

In the meantime, Laguna Beach police officers can be strategically deployed to areas not covered by the Outdoor Warning System to notify residents to evacuate if the event of a cell service outage, Manning said.

The expensive and time-intensive work of undergrounding utility lines remains the biggest unfinished recommendation of the wildfire safety report. Whalen and other city leaders have prioritized undergrounding utility lines along evacuation routes, partly because downed lines and poles were identified as a major barrier to evacuating residents during the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.

Officials have estimated the cost of undergrounding lines on Laguna Canyon Road between Canyon Acres Drive and El Toro Road at $60 million.

On Sept. 22, the City Council approved two new underground utility districts that will underground lines on Coast Highway and Bluebird Canyon Drive—both are critical evacuation routes and will be largely funded through a California Public Utilities Commission program that allows cities to share the cost with electrical ratepayers.

The Coast Highway project stretches from Cajon Street to Agate Street and will remove 36 utility poles. Additionally, 113 street lights will be replaced with ornamental street lights. The project is scheduled for completion in September 2024.

The Bluebird Canyon project stretches from Cress Street to around Saling Way and will remove 26 utility poles. This project is scheduled to be complete in February 2024.

During a presentation to the City Council by James Peterson, a Southern California Edison spokesperson, City Manager John Pietig asked if the utility company will consider offering additional financial help to city governments interested in undergrounding utility lines.

“We are looking at doing some undergrounding in very high-fire risk areas. In 2021, we were looking at roughly five to 10 miles of that,” Peterson said. “I don’t know any area of Orange County that’s been targeted so far. The areas we’d be looking at first are the areas that are frequently de-energized for a [Public Safety Power Shutoff.]”

Pietig offered a brief response to this statement.

“We remain hopeful that Edison will come up with some other programs that will help encourage municipalities to underground,” he said.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Yes to Fire Goats!
    No to Ruben Flores!

    Ruben Flores says on website “Fire safety does not include goats.”

    Plus he’s never voted in any election, it’s his first time to register to vote in his life.

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