With 75 calls flooding emergency phone lines in the first hour, callers were reporting a fire burning in the hills near the Top of the World neighborhood.
But police video surveillance cameras knew better.
“The fire was nowhere near Top of the World,” said police Chief Laura Farinella.
A dispatcher was able to pan a surveillance camera at the trailhead off of Alta Laguna Boulevard in Top of the World to see that the fire was burning in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park on the opposite side of Laguna Canyon Road. “Our access to those cameras allowed dispatch to say, ‘No, don’t go there. This is where the fire is’,” Farinella said.
“It took a little bit of time for us to ascertain where it was,” Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse told the City Council two days after the Sunday, June 26, blaze. Describing it as “suspicious in nature,” LaTendresse said the fire burned 47 acres two miles north of downtown. The blazed forced the evacuation and temporary closure of the wilderness park, which reopened last week.
Fire spreads fear in a town surrounded by wilderness during a prolonged drought at the beginning of wildfire season. Especially in those who, 23 years ago, endured a firestorm that swept across 14,336 acres and destroyed 347 homes in 12 hours.
For some, like 40-year resident Jerry King, the presence of surveillance cameras offers little comfort. “Waiting for a call about a fire is too late,” said King, who had to abandon his Top of the World home in the 1993 fire, keeping his fingers crossed while other homes burned around his.
“The issue is here and now. The action has to be here and now,” he said. “I’m drawing the conclusion that there’s a screen sitting somewhere in a police office; I wonder if anybody’s really watching it.”
Police Captain Jason Kravetz said the cameras are on 24/7 and viewed by a dispatcher, who monitors them around answering calls for service and deploying officers. The cameras also record; footage is used to investigate crimes and as evidence to bolster court cases, Kravetz said.
Besides the camera, there’s a speaker at the trailhead to the wilderness park that links directly to dispatch. “If the dispatcher sees people up there after hours, they can get on the speaker and say, ‘This is the Laguna Beach police department. The park is closed. Please vacate the area’,” said Farinella. “Believe me, they’re shocked when they hear that.”
King lives near the park and hikes there regularly. Last week, he found charred kindling along with cigarette butts at the Carolyn Wood Knoll, which hides a buried water tank near the entrance. He said social media is bringing more out-of-town visitors than he’s ever seen before. “I’m enraged by the moronic behavior of folks who go up there and smoke and, in this case, light a fire,” he said.
King asked the city to fence off the mound. “I think nothing short of blocking people from going up there is going to do the deed,” he said.
Surveillance cameras were initiated by the City Council, Farinella said. The police department requested more. With 13 surveillance cameras already installed on top of buildings around town, 10 more will be added to the fleet, extending to north and south Laguna, as approved by the City Council last week.
“It really gives the officers an understanding of what they’re getting into before they get there,” said Farinella, which she described as “situational awareness.” She wants the department’s officers to enjoy that benefit elsewhere in town.
The police chief doesn’t think 23 cameras is too many for a nine-square-mile city of 23,000 residents that hosts 6 million visitors a year.
The busiest sites are the Orange County Transit Authority bus depot on Broadway Street and Main Beach, Farinella said. “We want to make sure we’re getting a full understanding of what’s going on there, even when we’re not called,” she said.
The latest camera tops the Laguna Art Museum at Coast Highway and Cliff Drive just north of one of the busiest intersections in town, Broadway Street and Coast Highway. If a call is received about an erratic driver, the cameras reveal real-time information, and can even see how many people are in the car, said Farinella. They can also read the license plate number. If the car is stolen, the dispatcher can follow the driver via the video screen and direct officers, she said.
The police department looks at three areas to determine the need for more cameras: traffic flow and congestion; places where large groups congregate, such as the canyon art festivals, City Hall and Main Beach; and crime nuisance areas, like the bus depot, Farinella said.
The first city video surveillance camera was installed about two years ago on top of City Hall, Farinella said. Everybody going in or coming out of the building is on record. Pro-911, a private company based in Laguna Beach, will continue to install the new cameras.
The police department also issued a recent notice to business owners and organizations, encouraging the installation of interior surveillance cameras in case of break-ins, burglaries, property damage, suspicious activity or unwanted people on the property.