City officials are hopeful that a new state grant will provide the funds necessary to cut dry, dead brush in Laguna Canyon for fire prevention.
After hustling in May to apply for the grant, the city expects to learn soon if its $4.2 million proposal has been accepted. Officials said the city’s proposal scored highly in Southern California and is now up for a final decision in Sacramento.
Mike Rohde, a former Orange County Fire Authority battalion chief and the city’s consultant for wildland defense and fuel modification, said that after discussing a vegetation management program with city officials in April, staff fortuitously learned of a new statewide fund in May—the California Climate Investment Grant—sponsored jointly by CalFire and the California Air Resources Board and funded by the state’s carbon emissions cap and trade program. In its first year, the grant is offering $195 million statewide to cities and agencies proposing fuel modification projects that will benefit homes bordering wildland areas.
For Laguna Beach, that means a rare opportunity to use state funds to dampen fire potential in Laguna Canyon. The city has been keen to ramp up fire prevention in the canyon, with Council members recently approving a ballot measure that would raise the city’s sales tax to fund the undergrounding of power lines along evacuation routes such as Laguna Canyon Road.
Fire danger was thrust back into the spotlight in June, when the 150-acre Aliso fire forced an evacuation of the Top of the World neighborhood.
“The Aliso fire was probably the greatest risk to the city in the last 20 years, as far as active wildland threats,” Rohde said. “If it had burned during a Santa Ana condition with northeast winds, with rock bottom humidity and high temperatures, we would probably have had a 1993 kind of conclusion to that fire.” Those conditions prevailed in 1993 when 400 Laguna Beach homes were destroyed.
Some brush in Laguna Canyon hasn’t burned since 1955, and in other places, there’s no recorded fire history, Rohde said.
“You see a lot of green when you look,” Fire Chief Michael Garcia said of the canyon. “Underneath all that green are layers and layers of years and years of dead brush.” Garcia said it was those layers that were smoldering and reigniting for days during the Aliso Fire. “That’s what we want to clear out to minimize the threat.”
“The fire behavior we saw in the Aliso fire was driven by the same kinds of fuels, and that heavy, dead brush component that’s there naturally is what’s driving the fire behavior, that and the drought conditions that we’ve had for a number of years now,” Rohde said. “To us, that heightens the need for this project. It’s a piece of the puzzle that allows us to put some strong fire protection infrastructure in place.”
With only a month to respond to the state, City Manager John Pietig and Garcia directed staff to apply for the grant. As the state favors large, multi-agency proposals, the city worked with local agencies to form a seven-organization partnership and applied on June 5. Those partners include the city of Irvine, OCFA, Laguna Canyon Foundation, OC Parks, Greater Laguna Coast Firesafe Council and the Natural Communities Coalition.
With no funding cap, the partnering organizations submitted a hefty proposal seeking $4.2 million in funding that would be used to “minimize carbon emissions from wildfire and maximize carbon sequestration in healthy wildland habitat” in the Laguna Canyon area. Rohde said if the grant is received, 95 percent of those funds would be spent in Laguna Beach.
About $3.3 million would come from state funds, and the rest would come from a 25 percent match by the city and matching funds from the other grant partners. Rohde said the city’s portion—$874,200 over three and a half years—would be paid partly in cash and partly in services (i.e. the city will be credited $395,100 for administrative support). The city’s partners would chip in $911,700 total.
To accomplish the projects’ fire prevention goals, funds would be used to create fire breaks around structures in Laguna Canyon and Canyon Acres, to cut brush along Laguna Canyon Road to Irvine’s city limits to reduce its potential for ignition, and to restore native habitat in Orange County parklands.
If the grant is a go, Rohde said there will be an environmental planning phase to explore different fuel modification methods such as using hand crews and grazing.
Rohde said the projects would last a little more than three years, and maintenance would be paid for during that time. However, the city would be responsible for paying for fuel break maintenance after the project is completed. Rohde estimated that will cost between $200,000 and $500,000 annually depending on the maintenance method.
Mayor Pro Tem Rob Zur Schmiede applauded staff’s efforts on the grant application, noting that if the grant is received, it could save the city millions of dollars.
Council member Bob Whalen added that if the city’s ballot measure passes in November, some of those funds could be used for ongoing fuel modification and open space maintenance.
“If that were not to pass, as a community and as a council, we’re going to have to figure out ways to maintain this stuff, because otherwise you’ve sort of wasted your money,” Whalen said.
Hallie Jones, executive director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, voiced support for the project and said the foundation is focused on making sure fuel modification is done in an environmentally sensitive way.
“That’s really going to be our role in the project—looking at the sensitive species that are out there, making sure those species are protected and that the fuel modification is accomplished in the most efficient and environmentally safe way possible,” Jones said.
Barbara Norton, operations manager of OC Parks, said she’s excited about the potential opportunity to create more habitat through restoration projects. Norton said a minimum of three acres has been earmarked for restoration around Big Bend and the Willow Canyon parking lot.
“These are areas we’ve been working on in the past, and with additional funds and our partnership with Laguna Canyon Foundation, we’ll be able to accomplish this in a much more effective and efficient manner than we have in the past,” Norton said.
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