Laguna Preps for Fire Season

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City mulls adding air sirens to wildfire warning arsenal

By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach emergency planners are exploring the costs and logistics of installing air raid sirens throughout the city as an additional measure to prompt residents to evacuate during a wildfire, City Manager John Pietig said at fire safety meeting Monday at Unitarian Universalist Church.

Pietig raised the idea of air raid sirens during a wide-ranging presentation on improvements the city has made since the 1993 Laguna Fire on emergency warning systems, fuel modification zones, and emergency ingress and egress management.

“I’m concerned when time is short that maybe the electronic systems are not there,” Pietig said. “It could be very expensive, but it could be very critical.”

Pietig added that the sirens are an attractive option because they can have independent power sources the city controls and can be triggered via satellite. It’s unclear how much the siren installation would cost or when that project could come to the City Council for approval, but Mayor Bob Whalen has asked for a comprehensive report on Laguna Beach’s emergency procedures and recommended upgrades no later than July.

A contingent of city leaders visited the town of Paradise in January to learn from the emergency responders who worked the devastating Camp Fire. Wind-blown embers started fires that burned 17 cell towers in Paradise, disabling cell towers that were critical to delivering reverse 911 calls and unfortunately, many residents never received the warning to evacuate, said Jordan Villwock, emergency operations coordinator for Laguna Beach.

Paradise also had to evacuate its emergency dispatch center during the wildfire, which contributed to the chaos residents experienced, Villwock said.

Laguna Beach has multiple ways to notify residents of emergencies including its Nixle alert system, ReadyOC, the Downtown Outdoor Warning System, and social media pages. Villwock and six other city staffers also have access via their smartphones to activate the wireless emergency alert system that recently notified residents of flooding in Laguna Canyon during the Valentine’s Day storm.

“When you’re reliant on one individual to send a message, you’re going to miss alerting the rest of the population,” Villwock said.

The air raid siren would just be another fail-safe method to alert the public of a wildfire on top of these channels, Pietig said.

Laguna Beach also plans to be aggressive in the coming years in cutting back the vegetation along Laguna Canyon road and near hilltop neighborhoods. These so-called fuel modifications zones are designed to reduce the flame length and the heat coming off a wildfire to allow residents to safely evacuate. Villwock said that last year’s 175-acre Aliso Fire reinforced the importance of keeping Park Avenue open for evacuating the Top of the World neighborhood. City staffers recently applied for just under $1.2 million from the California Office of Emergency for a fuel modification zone that would protect Park Avenue.

Villwock expects to hear back from the state on that grant application in four to six months.

Another lesson from Paradise that Laguna Beach plans to explore is deploying emergency and non-emergency staff to direct traffic at emergency route choke points, including some outside the city limits, Pietig said. During the Camp Fire, a bottleneck eight miles away in the city of Chico turned one of Paradise’s evacuation routes into a parking lot.

Ultimately, it’s up to each household to take responsibility to prepare for wildfires and heed evacuation warnings, Villwock said.

“What’s really important is that [residents] follow those directions quickly when we tell [them] to,” he concluded.

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