Letter to the Community: Remembering the ’93 Fire

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Dear Laguna Beach Community,

Mayor Bob Whalen

Oct. 27, 2023, marks the 30th anniversary of the devastating 1993 wildfire that destroyed more than 400 homes in Laguna Beach. Those of us who were here then will never forget the howling winds, the smoky skies and the pure speed of the fire as it first hit Emerald Bay and then headed east, where it leapt across Laguna Canyon Road, went through Canyon Acres and across Mystic Hills. Thankfully, and remarkably, no lives were lost, but it was the wake-up call of a lifetime for the City.  

None of us wants to see a fire like 1993 ever again. But that hope can only be realized if both the City and individual residents work together to mitigate risks. I would like to update you on the work that the City has been doing to improve fire safety by implementing many of the recommendations from our 2019 Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Report.

On Sept. 19, the City hosted a wildfire town hall meeting to provide an update on the fire safety projects that have been completed in accordance with the Report. The town hall was led by members of the Laguna Beach Fire Department, Public Works Department, Police Department, and Marine Safety Department, who reviewed the measures implemented to date to improve our fire readiness and resiliency. Those include enhancements to our emergency alert and notification system with an expanded outdoor warning system, implementation of updated evacuation plans, the addition of two helicopter fire hydrant filling stations, installation of fire lookout cameras in the wildland area, and public infrastructure improvements that include widening Bluebird Canyon, maintenance and expansion of the City’s fuel modification zones, and continued work to underground utilities in the community. Though we are pleased that many of the 42 objectives outlined in the Report have been achieved, a number, primarily related to undergrounding power lines, are still in progress. If you missed the town hall meeting, I encourage you to watch it on the City’s website at lagunabeachcity.net/townhall

We have a number of utility undergrounding projects that are ongoing throughout the City. Construction for the Diamond Street Underground Utility Assessment District began in July 2023 and is expected to be completed in November 2023. This project will underground eight utility poles and improve evacuations in the Diamond/Crestview neighborhood. The Park Avenue Utility Undergrounding project is also underway, as it is a key evacuation route identified in the Report as one of only two access routes to approximately 600 homes. This project will remove eight utility poles and 1,035 feet of overhead utility lines and is anticipated to be completed by summer of 2024. The widening of Bluebird Canyon Road is complete, and the undergrounding of 20 utility poles and 2,200 linear feet of overhead utility lines is scheduled to start construction in the spring of 2024. Undergrounding the remaining poles along Coast Highway has been funded, and work will be ongoing over the next two years related to this project. 

On Laguna Canyon Road, many of you have seen the construction work north of El Toro Road as you head toward the 73. This Caltrans project adds a continuous second outbound lane north of El Toro Road. It removes 12 existing utility poles and more than 3,000 feet of overhead utility lines to improve the reliability of this major evacuation route. Anticipated completion is the end of 2025.  

Last November, the City Council authorized over $800,000 to design the undergrounding of SCE’s overhead utilities on Laguna Canyon Road, from El Toro Road to Canyon Acres Drive. Early this year, the City retained a team of consultants to conduct the environmental review and obtain the entitlements for road, bike and pedestrian safety improvements that are proposed if the undergrounding can be completed. This critical safety project would reduce fire risk in the open space adjacent to the road and eliminate the risk of traffic accidents and road closures due to collisions with power poles. We are actively seeking grant funding from the California Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Orange County Transportation Authority to make this project a reality.  

On Sept. 26, City Council adopted a resolution of intention to form the Woods Cove Underground Utility Assessment District. Assessment ballots are being mailed out to all affected property owners, informing them of the amount of their respective assessments and advising them of the process for casting their votes. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12 to tally the ballots. If the project vote is approved, construction is scheduled to begin in June 2024. 

The City Council is focused on ways to enhance and expedite the undergrounding program in the City to further reduce fire risk. Recognizing that undergrounding is expensive for property owners, the City Council has committed to increasing City contributions from 10% to approximately 20% of the project costs for the two most recent assessment districts, and I expect that we will continue to do so for future districts as well. At the Nov. 21 City Council meeting, City staff is scheduled to present revisions to the Underground Utility Assessment Deferment Loan Program, which offers certain property owners the option of deferring payment of their assessments until the sale of their property. The proposed revisions would revise the criteria for the program to make it available to more property owners having difficulty paying their assessments.  

While the City continues its efforts to mitigate fire risk, it is essential that we, as residents, take our own mitigation measures to prepare. A constant reality for residents in Laguna Beach is power or utility interruption, be it from a planned event such as a PSPS (public safety power shutoff), or a fire, landslide, or earthquake that impacts utilities. It is important for residents to plan for these outages by ensuring they have emergency supplies with flashlights and water and have a communications plan, how they’ll keep in touch with friends and family during times of a long outage. Residents with home medical equipment that requires electricity should contact their utility provider (SCE or SDG&E) for backup power solutions. You can purchase a well-equipped emergency kit from the City at the Community Center and Susie Q. You can also take steps to harden your homes and do vegetation management on your property. The Fire Department will do free inspections on request, and you can contact them at (949) 497-0700. 

I am very proud of our City team, which works constantly to prepare to protect the community in an emergency. We will never forget the 1993 fire that ravaged so many homes and our responsibility to be prepared to protect those we serve. 

In community spirit, Mayor Bob Whalen 

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