By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach needs to consider installing air raid-style sirens, hydrants that can refill hovering helicopters, and undergrounding utility lines near evacuation routes and wild vegetation, according to a long-awaited city report published Tuesday.
The 132-page is the product of more than six months of work by a subcommittee including Mayor Bob Whalen and Councilwoman Sue Kempf that comprehensively studied what else Laguna Beach can do to protect residents and visitors from wildfires. The report’s importance was reinforced during a January 2019 visit by Whalen, City Manager John Pietig, Fire Chief Mike Garcia, and other city staffers to the town of Paradise after the devastating Camp Fire.
“It is clear to the subcommittee and city staff that the events that occurred during the wildfire that destroyed Paradise could have occurred in Laguna Beach,” the report states.
City staffers identified nearly $23 million over the next two years that could be used to mitigate Laguna Beach’s wildfire risks. About $2 million in Measure LL funds that were earmarked for undergrounding will be tapped. The City Council also redirected a previously approved $1 million to CalPERS for short-term fire mitigation needs. City leaders will also mull substantial borrowing from the city’s parking and street lighting funds.
Laguna Beach is nationally recognized as a municipal leader for the variety of early warning systems it deploys before and during wildfires. However, digital communications are vulnerable to failure if cells towers burn and/or power outages disrupt residents’ internet service.
City officials are considering spending $1.2 million to establish a citywide outdoor warning system that uses loudspeakers and sirens to instruct the public to evacuate. The system is currently limited to the downtown area, Main Beach, and Heisler Park. Annual operating costs for such a system are estimated at about $50,000.
The Orange County Fire Authority announced this week that it awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters manned by crews with military-grade night vision goggles that allow pilots to fight fires at night. One of the aircrafts is a helitanker that uses a snorkel hose to hover over specialized hydrants and refill its water tanks without landing. These services were funded by a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison.
Laguna Beach is considering spending $150,000 to install remotely-active hydrant sites at the north and south ends of the city that could support this new aircraft.
The report also goes into great detail about the danger overhead utility lines pose to Laguna Beach by potentially starting fires and blocking evacuation routes. In November 2018, Laguna Beach voters defeated Measure P, which would have raised the sales tax to help pay for undergrounding utility lines along Laguna Canyon Road and other major evacuation routes.
“Undergrounding the remaining portions of Laguna Beach would be a significant cost,” the report states. “Special funding efforts will be required to complete the undergrounding throughout the town. If funding is obtained, the design and construction of the underground facilities could take many years to complete.”
The neighborhoods identified as top priorities for undergrounding because of their proximity to open space are Laguna Canyon, Top of the World, Bluebird Canyon, and South Laguna.
Matt Lawson, chair of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, said it’s critical for the City Council to fund the report’s recommendations while there is still a city to protect.
“I want to commend both the Council members involved and the city employees involved in this report,” Lawson said. “I think they put forward some extremely-well thought through and important recommendations that we need to implement with great urgency given the imminent, existential wildfire threat to the entire city.