Design for Disaster
The headline for this column is also the title of a film produced by the Los Angeles Fire Department about the Bel Air fire of Nov. 6, 1961—and we witnessed the reruns two weeks ago at Coronado Pointe above Aliso Canyon. I first saw that film in the early 1970s at a meeting of the Orange County Planning Commission where development was being considered for the ridgetops above South Laguna—just a short distance from the Coastal fire at Coronado Pointe. A South Laguna resident and retired firefighter who had fought the Bel Air fire pleaded with the Commission not to approve development on the ridge tops. “That is the most dangerous place to put homes. When there is a fire on the slopes it burns uphill and there is a chimney effect that increases the flame height and multiplies the fire danger.”
He went to such trouble to try to convince the commission of the danger of ridgetop fire. In those days you couldn’t just plug in a thumb drive to play a video, he had to haul in a projector, set it up, thread the celluloid, and hope it all worked. It did and the dramatic footage of flames, smoke, residents evacuating on foot, firefighters struggling to keep the fire managed while the winds blew spreading it beyond control portrayed images that were unforgettable. Over 400 homes were lost that day. But like a messiah calling in the wilderness, the citizen firefighter’s warnings were unheeded.
Development was approved for the ridgetops— the commissioners and supervisors thought that the developers should get something they wanted. We convinced the Commission to require that all areas for fire control, meaning fuel modification zones, had to be within the areas shown for development. This would have resulted in at least a hundred feet of set back from the edge of the ridge top with an irrigated, reduced fuel landscaped buffer. It would have meant that the houses would have been much less vulnerable to the chimney effect, and thus would have been safer from fire.
But no, when the actual tracts were approved there would be no such setback. Instead the houses were built out to the edge of the flat ridgetop and the natural vegetation on the slopes was thinned and removed to supposedly reduce the fire danger. We saw how well that worked at Coronado Pointe. The vegetation on those slopes had been severely reduced before the fire, and there was even a fire access road below the homes. None of it made any difference. The chimney effect pushing flying embers into the air setting the houses along the edge ablaze.
At that development there was supposed to be a berm along the edge, causing the houses to be set back and screening the houses so that they would not have been seen from Aliso Canyon. The developers got rid of that requirement too. They made more money from lots that had improved views. Of course the buyers of those properties had not been at that Planning Commission meeting and hadn’t seen the flames in that film, nor did they know there was supposed to have been a protective berm at the edge. They relied on the government planning process to approve safe building sites.
The developers got their money. The homeowners paid a terrible price. And the public agencies spent untold resources trying to defend the indefensible. We could have avoided this tragedy and it would have been far cheaper to pay the developers not to develop—as we did in preserving the Laguna Greenbelt.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She’s also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.