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Fire authorities believe power lines source of Emerald fire

The crest of the Emerald fire burns.
The crest of the Emerald fire burns to the top of a hillside in an unincorporated area behind Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach. The Emerald fire burned through 154 acres in February.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

An investigation by the Orange County Fire Authority suggests power line sparks were the likely cause of the Emerald fire that in February burned through 154 acres, according to Laguna Beach city officials.

The city of Laguna Beach in a news release issued Monday stated authorities determined during the five-month investigation that sparks from electrical arcing most likely started the brush fire, fed by high wind speeds.

The fire was reported at 4:10 a.m. on Feb. 10 and led to thousands in the city being evacuated from their homes.

“The Orange County Fire Authority employs a full-time, highly trained Fire Investigations section that conducts origins and causes of all fires, including wildland,” Capt. Greg Barta, spokesman for the Fire Authority, said in an email responding to a request for information about how the Emerald fire’s cause was pinpointed to electrical power lines. “On the Emerald fire, this team executed a detailed physical scene examination and collected facts and data through a variety of methods, including interviews and aerial surveillance. Based on the data and facts found during the investigation, investigators were able to identify the probable cause of the Emerald fire.”

No properties were harmed in the blaze, but the Coastal fire in nearby Laguna Niguel that broke out in May and is also believed to have been caused by Southern California Edison’s electrical equipment destroyed more than 20 homes, and homeowners there sued the company for damages.

The exact cause of that fire remains under investigation.

“Our number one priority is to protect the life and safety of our community from wildfire,” said Laguna Beach Mayor Sue Kempf in Monday’s news release. “We will not stop pushing Southern California Edison to do the right thing and underground their utilities. If you look at the long-term costs of wildfire damage, it is millions and millions of dollars that utilities are incurring in some of these fires, these utilities are better off proactively undergrounding their wires now and eliminating the risk to life and property.”

SCE spokeswoman Diane Castro wrote in an email that the utility’s officials have not yet studied the Fire Authority’s report.

“We know wildfires have a significant impact on the communities we serve and have been working to reduce the potential for wildfires through grid hardening, which includes installing covered conductor and targeted undergrounding of electrical lines,” Castro wrote. “We have not seen the OCFA report and will work with OCFA to better understand its determination of the cause of this fire, while continuing our work to safely mitigate the threat of wildfire throughout our service area.”

About 85% of Laguna Beach is designated as a very high fire hazard severity zone by CalFire and witnessed threats of the danger in 2015 and 2018. But those fires didn’t cast the shadow of the disastrous fire in 1993, which destroyed 16,684 acres and caused $528 million in property loss.

Officials have spent millions since 2019 on fortifying the city’s defenses against future blazes, installing an emergency outdoor warning system, a helicopter refueling tank and undergrounding utilities in neighborhoods throughout town.

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