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Steps to make Laguna safer from wildfire

Training, education and advance planning will make Laguna residents and their property less vulnerable to wildland fires, according to a Fire Department report to the City Council.

The City Council approved at the May 4 meeting a request by newly appointed Fire Chief Chris Head for funding for biological studies of Arch Beach Heights in order to expand a fuel modification zone. Fuel modification is one of the major factors in the report Head presented to the council that dwelt on the importance of taking defensive action before wildland fires break out and to educate the public in their role in fire prevention.

“We are in the final stages of developing pre-fire plans that deal specifically with our wildland fire threats from Crystal Cove [State Park], the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso and Woods Canyons Regional Park and the interior canyons in Laguna Beach,” Head told the council.

“By expending mental energy ahead of an incident, we can speed and guide the accuracy of the decision-making process during a fire,” he said.

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Fire prevention includes creating defensible space and fuel breaks.

Goats have chomped a girdle of fuel breaks around the city, but interior canyons pose a significant threat to residents and firefighters. Inadequate fuel breaks on non-conforming parcels have the potential for disaster, Head said.

A fuel break is being created by the Arch Beach Heights Park, which was designed that way. About two-thirds of the non-native brush has been cleared and replaced with native vegetation, which is less susceptible to fire and difficult to extinguish when they do burn.

“The department would like to expand off both ends of the view park and reduce the vegetation adjacent to homes around Arch Beach Heights,” Head said. “The project would eliminate invasive species that have taken over some parts of the canyon.”

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Head showed a slide of a pampas grass stand, a plant that City Councilwoman Toni Iseman and the Environmental Committee have lobbied to have removed even from private property, although it can be purchased in nurseries.

Head said the project, which requires a biological study, would be a boon to the community.

“It would reduce the fire threat to hundreds of homes by reducing the fire intensity,” Head said. “It improves residents’ safety and increases firefighter safety by providing defensible space.”

Defensible space is an area in which firefighters can more safely take a stand against a fire, but also increases the survival rate of structures adjacent to a fire when no firefighters are on the scene.

The project would also improve property owners’ chances of being insured against fire, which has been problematic in certain areas of Laguna Beach at certain times, including after the 1993 fire.

Further, Head said, the project motivates residents to take action themselves to protect their property.

The department has also focused on increasing firefighters’ safety and readiness with specialized training. Between Jan. 1 2008, and April 30, 2010, department personnel have logged more than 3,200 hours in wildland fire training, Head reported.

However, he said, residents must also must be prepared to safeguard their property and their lives.

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Implementation of the department’s Ready Set Go! program teaches residents how to prepare their homes to survive a fire.

“It gives residents the decision-making tools they need to prepare and evacuate early rather than later or not at all,” Head said.

Head’s report and photographs can be reviewed on the city’s website included a 1993 photograph of Thurston Middle School with estimated flame lengths of 80 to 100 feet.



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