Water, signal failures teach city a lesson

One of the major improvements to emerge from the 1993 Laguna Beach fire was an increase in the amount of available water to fight future blazes.

Laguna Beach fire Capt. Scott Jennie remembered trying to get water out of a hydrant in Mystic Hills to no avail during the fire, which began Oct. 27, 1993, on unincorporated county land before racing toward the coast.

"The hydrants were sucking air," Jennie said. "The pumps failed because electrical lines burned in Laguna Canyon."

The Laguna Beach County Water District, which serves 23,000 residents across 8 1/2 square miles, has made strides in fire readiness.

The district added to its amount of available water by 25% and has enhanced its communication capabilities by using advanced technology, according to assistant general manager Christopher Regan.

"We can be in the office and see what tanks are draining," Regan said. "If a pump is not working, an alarm on site notifies us."

In 1993 the district could store 25 1/2 million gallons of water among 20 reservoirs, which were 80% full at the time of the fire, Regan said.

Demand for water during the blaze was great — firefighters completely drained six of the reservoirs, according to the water district's website.

"During the height of the fire, we were draining tanks faster than we could fill them," he said.

Water pressure dropped as the fire burned sprinkler systems — essentially opening up pipes and causing water to spill out — and residents left hoses running while fleeing harm's way, Regan said.

But it wasn't just the flames that wreaked havoc for water district employees.

Smoke blocked communication signals from getting through, said Richard Mathis, the district's operations manager.

"We were on a lower bandwidth, so the smoke prevented a signal from getting out," Mathis said. "We couldn't get a signal to turn a pump on or off. This new system will find a way, such as [signals] hitting off other radio towers. The big thing is we can turn equipment on and off and not send [workers] out."

Today, Laguna can store 33 1/2 million gallons in 22 reservoirs.

The district built a 3-million-gallon reservoir near Alta Laguna Park in 1996 and a 5-million-gallon facility in north Laguna in 2000, according to Regan.

The north Laguna reservoir, also called the Zitnik reservoir, sits buried in a hill above Emerald Bay.

The Alta Laguna Park reservoir, also known as the Jahraus reservoir, cost $4 million, with ratepayers footing the bill, Regan said. It had its detractors.

"There was a lot of opposition because the area is open space ... [and] we didn't own the property," Regan said.

Water district and city officials eventually reached an agreement, with the city maintaining the reservoir, he said.

"The important thing is there is more water sitting on top of the hill," Regan said.

The district also installed more permanent generators at key pumping stations and has portable generators at the ready, he said.

"We have the ability to move water to where we need it; it's an interconnected system," Regan said.

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