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Laguna Beach looks for lessons from devastating Paradise fire

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Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig takes in the scene of destruction in a neighborhood in Paradise during a visit by Laguna officials.
(Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach)

A community of about 25,000 residents nestled in a wind-whipped canyon with few roads out of town. For Laguna Beach officials, the similarity of their coastal city to Paradise, the Northern California town ravaged by the Camp Fire in November, were too compelling to ignore.

So Mayor Bob Whalen, City Manager John Pietig, Fire Chief Mike Garcia, police Capt. Jeff Calvert and other emergency response officials visited Paradise recently to speak with fire specialists and tour the decimated community.

“Seeing the devastation of the entire town of Paradise firsthand was sobering,” Whalen said in a statement. “This town is not much bigger than Laguna Beach, and only ashes and chimneys remain in entire neighborhoods.”

The Camp Fire that started Nov. 8 in Butte County killed 86 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in California history. About 240 square miles burned, according to a report from California’s Watershed Emergency Response Team.

Members of Laguna’s Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Subcommittee, which the City Council formed in December in the wake of the Camp Fire, received a briefing from members of the Butte County Fire Department.

“The town is basically completely empty,” Pietig said. “It’s difficult to contemplate how this turned into a ghost town almost overnight.”

The group learned about the area’s fire prevention plans — and how the evacuation routes and emergency alert systems failed to withstand the Camp Fire’s fierce winds and reach.

“We wanted to absorb everything that they had to share and the ability to speak to the people that were there on the incident — that really raw information,” said Jordan Villwock, Laguna’s emergency operations coordinator. “We came back with a ton of notes … a ton of ideas. That was a long day but … it was well worth it.”

Paradise relied on the emergency alert system CodeRed to send texts, emails and calls to residents, but many of those messages failed as fire consumed cell towers across Butte County.

Laguna Beach, haunted by the 1993 wildfire that destroyed or damaged 441 homes, has tried various things over the years to reduce the city’s risk.

It has several warning systems for various levels of emergencies, Villwock said. Last year, the city became the first in Orange County to be able to access a wireless emergency alert system that can ping the cellphone of anyone in Laguna Beach — resident or visitor — using the same system as child abduction Amber alerts. In case of a life-or-death emergency, Laguna also can use AlertOC, an Orange County system that sends messages to landline phones.

Laguna’s community alert system, powered by Nixle, gives a variety of notices — from traffic advisories to flood watches — to residents who sign up. A downtown outdoor warning system, tested most recently in March, sends audio warnings from speakers at City Hall, Heisler Park and Main Beach. The city also can ask the county to activate its Emergency Alert System to issue countywide warnings on AM and FM radio and TV.

City officials may expand the outdoor warning system so speakers blast messages citywide to the nearly 23,000 residents and the millions of tourists who visit every year.

“There are still some communication components we may want to consider,” Pietig said.

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Shem Hawkins, left, battalion chief for the Butte County unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, fought the Camp Fire from the air in November.
(Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach)

Shem Hawkins, battalion chief for the Butte County unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, advised Laguna officials to collaborate with other local agencies to develop emergency plans.

“Planning and outreach to the community is probably your best option,” said Hawkins, a Cal Fire pilot who fought the Camp Fire from the sky. “[The] ideal message is be prepared, evacuate early.”

In Paradise, the four main thoroughfares leading out of the city quickly clogged with residents fleeing the rapid fire. Though Paradise had completed evacuation drills as recently as 2016, the plans did not include the possibility of the town’s nearly 27,000 residents leaving at once. To add to the confusion, power lines fell across roads, blocking some people on dead-end or narrow streets.

“There weren’t enough resources to be able to hit those choke points, so it became something of an hourglass where multiple cars tried to get on at once,” Hawkins said.

Villwock said he is proud of Laguna’s evacuation plan, but he said the subcommittee is looking into using software from Old Dominion University in Virginia that could model various evacuation scenarios and offer ideas for how to expand the plan.

“Let’s be honest, Laguna Beach has beautiful topography, but with that topography comes hazards,” said Villwock, who added that 90% of the city is in very high fire hazard severity zones, according to Cal Fire.

“We have to paint that picture,” he said. “We don’t like to go around and say ‘Be scared to live in Laguna Beach,’ but you have to understand the hazards.”

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Laguna Beach officials toured neighborhoods of Paradise in Butte County that were ravaged in November by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.
(Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach)

Laguna and Paradise officials discussed temporary refuge areas, such as parking lots where people could be sheltered, and fuel modification to clear dead and dry brush along escape routes.

“The Camp Fire teaches us that we are vulnerable and must continue our wildfire mitigation planning and our proactive efforts to make our community more resistant to wildfire,” Garcia said in a statement. “Fire-resistant infrastructure, fire-safe construction and fuel management must be in place before a fire happens to limit loss.”

The wildfire mitigation subcommittee formed a month after Measure P — a ballot measure Whalen strongly pushed that would have raised the local sales tax by 1 percentage point to fund power line undergrounding and other fire safety projects — failed in the Nov. 6 election. The subcommittee is tasked with assessing the city’s risk of wildfires and developing a plan to expand programs and mitigation measures for a report due to the City Council on June 1.

Whalen’s mission to place utility lines underground stretches back to 2016, when he lobbied state legislators to pass Senate Bill 1463, which would have required the state to prioritize high-risk areas for stronger mitigation. The bill passed the Assembly and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who said the state Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire already address the issues in the bill.

Last month, the City Council allowed the Laguna Canyon Foundation and environmental consulting firm Glenn Lukos Associates to study Laguna’s landscape and advise the city on how to treat certain areas and make infrastructure changes. If approved, their suggestions — expected by the end of spring — will be put into action with funding from a nearly $3.3-million grant that Cal Fire awarded Laguna Beach in August.

“We have areas of the city, like Laguna Canyon, that have seen historical fires, seen a lot of loss,” Mike Rohde, Laguna’s wildland fire defense coordinator, said at the Jan. 8 council meeting. “We haven’t had the opportunity to do anything there before. Now we’re going to be able to put in some infrastructure that will give us good, defensible space around homes and make a big difference for us.”

Hawkins said he was impressed by Laguna Beach officials’ proactivity and emphasized that all departments should be involved in preparing the city for a wildfire.

“This is something that will happen to Laguna Beach,” Hawkins said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. … It already has happened, and if there’s one thing that we’ve seen, fires repeat themselves.”