Firefighters expect to fully contain a fire that charred 50 acres of brush and reopen the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park as early as today, Thursday, June 30, park and fire officials said.
Firefighters remained in the park cutting brush and dousing the perimeter with water for several days in the aftermath of the blaze that ignited at midday Sunday, June 26, near Big Bend along Laguna Canyon Road. The fire was 93 percent contained as of Wednesday, according to a report by state firefighters.
“The park will not be released until we’re certain the fire won’t go over the line they have established,” said Capt. Larry Kurtz, an Orange County Fire Authority spokesman, who described work by firefighters to remove brush on the fire’s perimeter in steep terrain.
Authorities reopened Laguna Canyon Road after a six-hour closure in both directions Sunday as fire-fighting helicopters and airplanes made water and fire retardant drops on the slow-moving fire.
Investigators have yet to identify how the blaze ignited. Supervising Park Ranger Barbara Norton described it as “man-made” in an interview Tuesday.
Norton said eight rangers in vehicles helped evacuate the “few hundred” hikers and cyclists that normally enter the park on Sunday, asking people to return to their starting points and turning around those at trailheads.
The fire burned from the Laguna Ridge Trail near Big Bend, 2.5 miles northeast of town, but stopped short of Bommer Ridge, Norton said. Last July, downed power lines sparked another brush fire even closer to town, which also burned into the wilderness park and was doused with dispatch by aerial bombardment.
In one canyon bottom Sunday’s fire reached coast live oaks that serve as habitat for protected birds, such as gnatcatchers, said Norton, though none of the burn area had been identified as a nesting area. “It is a sensitive area,” she said. The 7,000-acre park is home to many “species of special concern,” such as the red diamond rattlesnake and orange-throated whiptail lizard, said resource specialist Laura Cohen.
About 100 firefighters from seven agencies managed 60 percent containment by nightfall Sunday and 85 percent by the following day, Kurtz said. “After the fire, there is a lot of work to be done,” he said, requiring firefighters to hike in and cut a fire line by hand as a bulldozer can’t access the steep hillsides.
No homes were threatened and neither were evacuations to property required, says a statement by Jordan Villwock, the city’s emergency coordinator.
The closure forced visitors to the Sawdust Festival, which opened its 50th season two days earlier, to park in the downtown areas rather than Laguna Canyon. Even so, 1,700 patrons still made their way to the eucalyptus grove despite the road closure, president Jay Grant said. “Less than a usual Sunday, but we felt fortunate indeed,” he said.
Cooler than predicted weather helped firefighters with midday cloud cover. “We were very lucky we didn’t have any wind,” said Kurtz, who recalled being on the line in Laguna Beach during 1993’s firestorm. Sunday’s fire “was slope-driven and spread much slower,” he said.
The National Weather Service predicts patchy fog and midmorning clouds with highs in the 70s for the Independence Day weekend.