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A week after Laguna Beach blaze, firefighters work to rehabilitate habitat

Orange County Fire Authority crew pull a tree shrub in the area of the Emerald fire.
Orange County Fire Authority continue with suppression repair, such as taking clippings of trees and brushes, and creating aesthetics to discourage people from making a new pathway in the area of the Emerald fire.
(Courtesy of Orange County Fire Authority)

A week after a brush fire ignited in north Laguna Beach and charred about 154 acres, firefighters are continuing to rehabilitate the habitat.

“The goal is to do basic repairs to invest back into the earth,” said Sean Doran, fire captain and public information officer for the Orange County Fire Authority.

Although the blaze appeared to be extinguished from Pacific Coast Highway, OCFA anticipated the fire would be completely contained by Thursday at the latest, according to the agency’s Twitter account. Fire suppression repair would ensue a few days past that.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Doran said.

Irvine Cove and Emerald Bay residents were evacuated after the blaze, dubbed the Emerald fire, first broke out around 4 a.m. on Feb. 10 in the hillside wilderness area between Laguna Beach and Emerald Bay near Coast Highway.

No homes were destroyed or damaged, and residents were able to return to their homes later that afternoon.

“We were extremely fortunate that we did not have any injuries and/or property loss,” said Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia. “The fact that this fire happened in February with relatively high moisture in our vegetation (fuels), is a reminder that vegetation fires can happen anytime throughout the year and that preparedness is key to survival of both life and property.”

On Thursday, OCFA crews coordinated with Crystal Cove State Park officials to continue the work with hand tools and chainsaws rather than the bulldozers and excavators initially used in battling the fire.

Crews took clippings from trees, brushes and cactus. They’ll also place some native soil and seed beds in the brush area.

One reason is “aesthetics,” Doran said. “To discourage people from making that a new pathway. It protects that dirt from wind, soil erosion and provides more nutrients for Earth. The goal is to protect life, property and environment.”

On the morning of the Feb. 10 fire, Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake was in Palm Springs with his wife. Text messages illustrating the blaze rolled in before 5 a.m. and instantly transported him back to his memories of the 1993 fire that displaced hundreds.

“Watching those flames engulf the community I loved was unbelievable,” Blake said. “I got back in my car with my wife and we drove back to Laguna and stayed until Saturday afternoon when the fire chief said he was comfortable we were in the clear.”

In the aftermath, Blake said the city learned residents are not all subscribed to the city’s Nixle account, an emergency alert system that notifies them via text message or email about incidents such as criminal activity, major traffic incidents and fires.

Residents who were alerted about the fire at 4:29 a.m. are subscribed to the city’s Nixle, Blake said, and those who received an alert at 6 a.m. signed up for Orange County’s Nixle.

“Now we’re in the process of advising residents how to set up on the right one,” he said.

Residents can sign up for the city’s Nixle by texting 92651 to 888-777 (a six-digit emergency alert number). Garcia also urged residents to register with AlertOC, another emergency system used by the county and Laguna.

“It is extremely important residents are signed up for both notification systems so they are sure to get all messages in an emergency situation,” he said.

Schools in Laguna closed for the day out of precaution. Laguna Beach Unified School District public information officer Shelly Spessard said students and staff were grateful no homes were lost, the school wasn’t damaged and no one was hurt.

“We are pleased to share that most recently, the vegetation located on the east and south property edges of El Morro Elementary, adjacent to the California State Park open space, was strategically thinned,” Spessard said in a statement. “The main goal was to break up the continuity of vegetation to slow the spread of a fire, maintaining the students’ safety and privacy.”

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