Park, parking access to be limited on high fire-danger days

A pilot program that would limit parking on some city streets and restrict access to wilderness parks during periods of high fire danger won unanimous Laguna Beach City Council support Jan. 21.

The council adopted three recommendations from the city's Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Committee that would improve first-responder access in potential fire zones.

Council members gave the OK for the fire department to hold at least one public meeting and gather feedback from residents in the Diamond/Crestview area about limiting parking on certain streets during high fire-danger periods, known as red-flag days.

About 100 homes would be affected by the trial program, which will last at least a year.The committee recommended the neighborhood, which includes Diamond Street, Crestview Drive and Ruby Place, because it has "significant access issues" and is easy to study, a city staff report said.

Before the committee recommendation, the Fire Risk Mitigation Subcommittee, which advises the larger Disaster Preparedness panel, met with officials from the Los Angeles and Pasadena fire departments to learn about parking restrictions in those cities.

One possibility they came back with is for Laguna is to prohibit parking on both sides of streets 27 feet wide or less. If a street is between 27 and 32 feet, then cars could park on only one side during red-flag periods. The dimensions are important because of clearance required by fire vehicles.

Red-flag periods occur when relative humidity is less than or equal to 15% with winds 25 mph or greater, and/or frequent gusts of 35 mph or greater, for a period of six hours or more, according to the National Weather Service. Another red-flag condition occurs when relative humidity is 10% or less for 10 or more hours, regardless of wind speed.

As of Jan. 21, Laguna Beach had five red-flag days compared with seven each in 2013 and 2012, Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse told the council.

Once the department gathers information, a brochure containing red flag information would be sent to each person in the affected area.

Residents will be able to sign up for notifications on the city's website that would send a message to a phone or email account. The fire department would update its website with red flag parking restrictions.

Both Pasadena and Los Angeles permitted a grace period before ticketing or towing vehicles parked in prohibited zones. The Laguna committee recommended a similar grace period.

LaTendresse's goal is to hold public meetings in the next three months and return to the council with a recommendation, including how an ordinance would be enforced and specific penalties for violations, in six months.


Improved signage

The second recommendation was to add and update signs that read: "dead end," "no outlet" and "dead end, no turnaround."

For example, 18 cul-de-sacs need to be painted red to ensure that turnarounds are reserved for emergency vehicles, the staff report said.

The fire department surveyed all of the city's public and private streets and determined 80 new "dead end" need to be installed. An additional 73 signs need to be updated to read "dead end no turn around."

By installing signs to identify areas that don't have an outlet, first responders — who come from other cities as well as Laguna — will have a clearer picture of the area they are heading into, the report said.

During the 1993 Laguna fire more than 300 engines from agencies throughout the state assisted. On many occasions, trucks needed to leave a spot due to rapidly advancing fire, and out-of-town crews were unfamiliar with narrow streets that provided limited access, the staff report said.

The council recently approved spending $30,000 to install and correct signs as part of its mid-year budget update.


Possible park closures

The third recommendation calls for the fire department to gather input from rangers at Orange County Parks on possibly closing Laguna Coast and Aliso and Wood Canyons wilderness parks on red-flag days.

If a fire were to break out while the parks are full, visitors could become trapped miles from safety, and getting them out could pull firefighters away from battling a blaze, the report said.

During a typical weekday rangers estimate several hundred visitors are inside both parks; crowds swell to several thousand on weekends.

Crystal Cove State Park already closes to the public on red-flag days, while OC Parks closes Laguna Coast and Aliso and Wood Canyons wilderness parks on rainy days so trails aren't damaged.


Thoughts from council members

Council members emphasized the need to effectively communicate the recommendations.

"I think it's a great idea, but I'm concerned about enforcement," Councilwoman Toni Iseman said. "I imagine most of the streets are going to have to be stripped of cars. The question is: Would we have enforcement and where would the cars go?"

LaTendresse said in some cities neighbors share space on high-danger days but that isn't always an easy answer.

"If I only have one vehicle and my neighbor has two extra spaces, could I move my vehicles there?" LaTendresse asked. "It's difficult. No one provides any designated lots or transportation from Point A to Point B. The resident would be on their own to try to find a different place to park."

Councilman Kelly Boyd suggested that people clean out their garages and park their cars where they "belong."

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson suggested placing park-closure notices on electronic freeway billboards.

"The Disaster Preparedness Committee is very serious about this subject," Pearson said. "Almost all members participated in CERT [Community Emergency Response Team] training to help us out and that speaks to the dedication that they have put into this."

Councilman Steve Dicterow said precaution, even temporary park closures on high-risk days, is necessary.

"It's the bad few that create the problems," Dicterow said. "We have to keep the bad few out of there. It is only a handful [of days]. It's not as if this is 300 days a year."

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