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Closure snarls traffic

A 70-foot oak tree fell into power lines on Laguna Canyon Road Friday, blacking out 11,136 homes and businesses and creating a traffic quagmire throughout Labor Day weekend.

The downed tree, which officials said fell due to age, also caused problems for the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Live broken power lines fell into the parking lot shared by the Center and the Shelter, setting a car on fire and trapping about 15 more, Laguna Beach Assistant City Manager John Pietig said.

The car burst into flames when the broken power line hit it, threatening to ignite a larger blaze during a day of intense heat.

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“Keep in mind these were 66,000-voltage lines,” Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Bob Rahaeuser said.

The road was closed to non-residents until early Sunday morning.

The fire was contained, and there were no injuries. The trapped cars were freed Sunday.

The felled tree took out three power line poles and a Verizon Wireless tower, Pietig said. The hefty oak caused the two poles nearest to the tree to break under the pressure.

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The next two poles down the line also buckled under the weight of the tree and sagging power lines.

“They were just literally splintered,” Pietig said.

The damage happened about 12:45 p.m., and power was restored to most of the affected areas by about 1:10 p.m. About 600 Edison customers remained without power until Friday evening.

One lane of Laguna Canyon Road was re-opened Saturday to allow traffic through intermittently in both directions.

Rahaeuser said traffic was forced to use one of Laguna Beach’s only two remaining arteries — North and South Coast Highways, to travel outside the city. This created congestion in those areas early on as well.

“It was a substantial delay for anyone to get into town,” Pietig said.

The traffic problems were compounded by large crowds that headed to Laguna over Labor Day weekend.

City officials and police officers worked with Caltrans to inform motorists of the delays. Electronic warnings and road signs were erected at all the major inlets onto Laguna Canyon Road.

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