Study: Laguna Beach’s evacuation will take at least 4.5 hours

A CalFire helicopter crew drops water on a brush fire off State Route 73 west of Laguna Canyon Road in June. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

In the best possible conditions, Laguna Beach could be entirely emptied of people in four hours and 20 minutes, according to a long-awaited study ordered by city leaders.

But in the more likely scenario that Laguna Canyon Road and State Route 73 are unavailable during a fast-moving wildfire, this timeframe could increase to as much as five hours and 40 minutes. These evacuation times won’t be the experience of every Laguna Beach resident, Emergency Operations Coordinator Brendan Manning said, rather they represent how long it could take the last car to cross the city limit.

“It’s going to be the person who took the longest to get notified and the longest to pack their bags and get out of town,” Manning said.

The City Council was supposed to hear a presentation on the so-called Evacuation Time Estimate Study on Tuesday but the matter was pushed to a future meeting due to other city business. The model will ideally allow emergency planners to fine-tune Laguna Beach’s evacuation plan.

The Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee is very pleased the City Council requested this study and staff executed it, committee chair Matt Lawson said Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s any secret our emergency ingress and egress is limited in Laguna Beach and I’m very pleased we’re developing the data to make some sound policy decisions,” Lawson said.

Laguna Beach’s consultant, KLD Engineering, visited Laguna Beach three times to gather roadway data, survey residents living with the city’s zip codes, and examine access-impaired roads. The New York state-based firm then set to creating computer simulations to quantify evacuation times.

The consultant identified Canyon Acres Drive, Bluebird Canyon, Diamond Street, and Crestview Drive as access impaired. A stalled car, fallen tree or downed power line could clog traffic for everyone attempting to leave these neighborhoods at the same time.

“These neighborhoods would require early notification during an approaching wildfire as they may be unable to evacuate if a fire were present,” city staffers wrote in a report.

Residents can expect to get emergency instructions via Wireless Emergency Alerts, Nixle, Alert OC, and the city’s newly completed loudspeaker system well before a fire poses an immediate threat to homes, Manning said. They can always voluntarily evacuate when an emergency advisory message goes out—usually before an official order.

Manning also highlighted the importance for each household to only use one vehicle to evacuate. If this were the case, the time estimate would decrease by as much as one hour and 20 minutes.

“That’s going to help your neighbor get out as well because you’re only taking up one car,” Manning said.

As early as next spring, city leaders will ask for volunteers living in certain neighborhoods to participate in a real-life “dress rehearsal” so they can find chokepoints on evacuation routes, Manning said. During the chaos of a wildfire, neighborhood-specific training will be key and a series of community education events are in the works, he added.

The completion of this study could clear the way for other projects recommended in Laguna Beach’s Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety report approved by the City Council in 2019.

City staffers are considering installing evacuate route signage around and aim to complete this project by next month. The Police Department has also looked at permanently staging traffic control devices to help officers keep vehicles moving on designated routes. City staffers would like to have these devices in hand by the end of this year, according to a staff report.

Additionally, Laguna Beach is discussing the installation of a fire surveillance camera in partnership with the WIFIRE Lab at UC San Diego and the Laguna Beach County Water District. A camera is expected to be installed by this fall.

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