Board approves Oro Canyon vegetation removal

Fire Chief Kris Head is proposing a project to protect local canyons from events like the firestorm that hit Laguna Beach in 1993.

During Thursday's Design Review Board meeting, Head received approval to modify Oro Canyon's vegetation to make it less susceptible to fire.

The amount of vegetation combined with the lack of fire history and fuel modification efforts makes the neighborhood worrisome, he said.

Head, project planner Kathy Lottes and biologist Tony Bomkamp propose removing 50% of the vegetation in the 150-foot area south of Del Mar Avenue and above Arch Beach Heights.

"The development pattern up there lends itself to be somewhat difficult," Head said. "Even if we didn't have the vegetation, which is a huge issue in and of itself, the fact that the streets are narrow, the homes have minimal setbacks, older type construction lends itself to be a concern."

He used fire behavior software to simulate a fire in Oro Canyon. The results weren't good.

"In our opinion this is a worse fire than the one we experienced in '93 just due to the density of the homes in the area," he said. "We anticipate that we could lose about 1,500 homes should we experience a 1993 type fire on this side of the canyon."

Due to the amount of vegetation, Head said a conflagration in Oro Canyon would create embers that would shower the entire city.

The plan started two years ago when Head was investigating canyons in the area that needed fuel modifications. Large patches of vegetation are known as "fuel beds" because they become fuel for fire.

The majority of the vegetation, Head said, is nonnative. He said he believes the project will thin the vegetation by 50% by simply removing the dead and dying vegetation.

Lottes and Bomkamp have been conducting studies, looking at the number of native and nonnative species growing in Oro, and also at the calendar to see if it conflicted with blooming or bird nesting.

No endangered or threatened native species, such as the crown beard and local succulent Laguna dudlea, will be harmed.

Design Review Board members were supportive of the project, offering words of encouragement after the presentation.

"The due diligence that was shown by hiring the biologist, by doing the negative declaration, by having the mitigated measures. You answered all my questions before I had any and I can support the project as submitted this evening," board member Caren Liuzzi said.

Board member Ilse Lenschow agreed.

"I think it's a project that's probably 50 years overdue," she said. "The whole city might go. I hope it's done as soon as possible."

Work is planned to start in September and end in February in order to not disturb the migratory nesting birds in the area.

"This is considered the first phase for Oro Canyon," Head said. "If we continue to get the support, the goal would be to install an entire fuel [modification] around the canyon."

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