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City on high fire alert

Dangerous wildfire conditions and an outbreak of fires in Southern California have spurred Laguna Beach officials to take extra precautions. 

Top of the World and El Morro elementary schools and Thurston Middle School, all close to the wildlands adjacent to developed areas of Laguna, were closed Monday as a precaution, City Manager Ken Frank said.

 "We have five engines on duty today, including three paramedic engines rather than two,” Frank said. “We have 20 firefighters on duty, up from the usual 12. Volunteers from Red Flag and police department and fire fighters are on patrol. They will be out all night.”

Red and yellow “fire alert” flags have been posted throughout the city. Residents are stocking up on masks to guard against smoke inhalation, as well as buying flashlights, batteries -- and rope. Coast Hardware sold out of painters’ masks by 11 a.m. this morning, an employee said.

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Laguna Beach officials do not view the Irvine fire as an immediate threat, but the fire department is on high alert, acutely aware of the dangerous combination of capricious winds, high temperatures and dry brush. 

It was just shy of 14 years ago — on a balmy Oct. 27, 1993 — that a small arson fire in Laguna Canyon was buffeted by Santa Ana winds into an inferno that forever changed the landscape of Laguna. 

While residents cast a wary eye at the fire in Irvine, Acting Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse, filling in for vacationing Fire Chief Mike Macey, said he is more concerned about a fire starting closer to Laguna. 

“The Irvine fire has to go through a lot of concrete before it reaches us,” LaTendresse said.

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In fact, two of Laguna’s engines were deployed as of early Monday morning to assist in other areas, more direly threatened. Engine 302, a brush rig, is in Irvine. Engine 313, the gift of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, is in Malibu, fulfilling the city’s obligation to respond with the engine to requests for assistance.

La Tendresse said the fires devastating Southern California validate the city’s fuel modification policy of clearing defensible space in the interface between wild lands and developed areas of town.

 "If you look at the fires, homes in areas with fuel modification zones are more likely to be saved,” La Tendress said. “And the department is recommending new building standards that will make the city safer." 

The department also recommends every resident have an evacuation plan.

 "They should know what they want to take and where they want to go,” LaTendresse said.  

He also advised residents to stay indoors or at least limit outdoor activities if possible to avoid the effects of smoke that hovered over Laguna today and more than likely will linger for days.  

City employees were advised to stay indoors if feasible.

 Laguna Beach High School was in session. 

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To be on the safe side, LaTendresse said, residents should keep listening to broadcasts during the emergency and pay attention because of the Santa Anas and high temperatures, as well as the possibility of arson — believed to have started the Irvine fire as well as the 1993 Firestorm in Laguna.  

Frank said emergency calls should be made to 911, but all other calls regarding fire safety information and questions should be directed to (949) 497-0701.


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