After witnessing a brush fire in Laguna Canyon caused by a tree falling and damaging Southern California Edison power lines, Mayor Bob Whalen called Tuesday for an all-out effort to underground utilities citywide.
“We can no longer risk the public safety of Laguna Beach by allowing above ground utilities,” Whalen said in a statement. “We dodged a bullet last Friday thanks to favorable wind conditions and the extraordinary efforts of the Laguna Beach Fire Department and Orange County Fire Authority, but we can’t continue to roll the dice. A major fire disaster caused by power lines is only a matter of time.”
Whalen called on Southern California Edison to join in the effort and shoulder a substantial portion of the cost. “It is no longer safe for them to operate an above ground utility system here,” he said in a statement, which estimated the citywide cost at $150 million.
Whalen said he will request a meeting with Edison President Pedro Pizarro to begin discussions on a citywide undergrounding plan.
In the last eight years, at least four fires have been attributed to above-ground Edison utilities, the city statement says.
An arsonist ignited the city’s worst blaze, the 1993 firestorm during howling Santa Ana winds that damaged or destroyed over 400 homes and is still considered one of the nation’s worst fire disasters.
The fire Friday, July 3, began about 3:30 p.m. and started when falling trees hit a power line on Arroyo Drive, which sparked a fire on a brush covered hillside along Laguna Canyon Road.
With light winds and air support called in from Hemet, the fire was knocked down after burning about 15 acres, but fire crews remained in the area through the weekend to douse hot spots and to make sure that the fire didn’t restart. Five aircraft and 150 firefighters were deployed, said fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. “We were the only fire going on,” he said.
Nearly all of Laguna Beach is considered a high fire hazard risk, as rated by the State of California. Residents, motivated by improving views and lowering fire risk, themselves have footed the bill to bury utility lines in their own neighborhoods in 40 percent of the city, the public works department estimates.
Since 2007, Edison power poles have ignited several small fires in Laguna and been involved in 46 accidents along Laguna Canyon Road, the city statement says.
Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede, who with Whalen was appointed by the City Council to identify ways to accelerate undergrounding of power poles, echoed his support for Whalen’s stand.
“We can no longer wait for overhead utilities to be placed underground neighborhood-by-neighborhood,” Zur Schmiede said. “We have some ideas as to how Edison can partner with us financially and hope they are open to negotiating a fair solution.”
A Laguna Canyon Road task force has been at work for nine months, working on ways to improve the major artery into town. Burying utility poles has already been identified as it top priority. Other items under study include improvements for pedestrians and cyclists and better egress for vehicles. A report is expected shortly.
Whalen said city officials will also pursue talks with San Diego Gas & Electric, which serves South Laguna residents.
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