Planning Commission OKs $1M South Laguna fire break

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Natures Image landscapers Richard Aguirre (right) and Alberto Vargas trim invasive plants in August 2019 in Oro Canyon. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Planning Commission unanimously approved a long-awaited, 17-acre wildfire fuel modification zone around South Laguna on Wednesday.

A $1 million grant partnership with the California Department of Natural Resources and the Laguna Canyon Foundation has funded the project to mitigate the City’s very high fire hazard. The project is appealable to the California Coastal Commission.

Last year, the state panel denied an appeal by Mark and Sharon Fudge that challenged a similar fuel modification project in Laguna Canyon, holding that city officials sufficiently planned to minimize adverse impacts to coastal resources.

“There are no guarantees on any of this stuff and the best we can do is to be proactive to protect ourselves, our lives, and our property,” Commissioner Ken Sadler said.

Many Laguna Beach homeowners have seen home insurance companies drop their policies because of the city’s very high wildfire risk, Sadler said, adding it’s important the city does want it can to prevent more firms from leaving town.

In South Laguna, one zone will target an area of almost eight acres from Ceanothus Drive to Eagle Rock Way, helping protect the headquarters of the South Coast Water District. Another zone would trim back 12.5 acres from Eagle Rock Way to about 10th street. Crews will begin thinning or removing plants about 30 feet from the end of properties’ backyards and work their way out 100 feet.

Most of the work will be done between March and September to avoid seasons with high winds or rainfall, Wildland Fire Defense and Fuels Program Manager Mike Rohde said. The project is estimated to take two years to complete but about 80% of the clearance will be done within six months of breaking ground.

Crews will be clearing vegetation by hand, supervised by Laguna Beach Fire staff and ecologists from the Laguna Canyon Foundation. The clearing will occur from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin, a landscape architect, recommended that Laguna Beach’s wildfire fuel modification zones be submitted for a national award once the citywide network is completed.

“I think this is a textbook case of how to do a fuel modification project,” she said. “It’s highly professional. It has a team of experts that are looking at every single aspect of the impact to doing the fuel modification plan.

The first house Commissioner Steven Kellenberg owned in Laguna Beach was singed during the 1993 Laguna Fire.

“I remember standing in a bar at Crown Valley watching TV and people sobbing as they watched their houses burn,” he said. “It’s a very traumatic danger.”

Despite an urban planning career that includes a stint as senior vice president at the Irvine Co., Kellenberg said he’s never encountered the level of in-depth environmental study conducted for the South Laguna project to safeguard rare native plant species.

South Laguna resident Karen Liuzzi strongly supported the project, saying she lost her home insurance policy two years ago mainly because a neighbor wasn’t maintaining vegetation in the open space and creek bed.

“It’s a long-time due,” she said. “This canyon along West Street, I believe, has never burned and it is in dire need so I want to thank you and anything you can do is greatly appreciated.”

A South Laguna Civic Association spokesperson wasn’t available to comment on Wednesday’s vote before press time. A June 21 letter from the Association addressed to Fire Chief Mike Garcia, raised multiple questions about the presence of endangered plant species and the financial cost for homeowners who don’t agree to provide access and will be held responsible to implement the fuel modification at their own cost.

“While our entire community supports the efforts of our local Fire Department to create a Laguna Beach that is well-prepared for the seriousness of a potential wildfire and SLCA is eager to partner with Fire Chief Garcia in improving fire safety for South Laguna via the Fuel Modification plan,” SCLA President Greg O’Loughlin wrote.

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