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Laguna Beach

 Volume 14, Issue 52  |  July 1, 2022


Council approves Coastal Fire investigation NDA, chief says LB “lucky” blaze wasn’t worse

By SARA HALL

City Council this week unanimously approved a non-disclosure agreement with several agencies to investigate the cause of the recent Coastal Fire, while the local fire chief said Laguna Beach was again “lucky” that the blaze wasn’t worse.

On Tuesday (May 24), council voted 5-0 to authorize the city manager to execute the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and receive confidential information, along with the LB Fire Department chief, as part of the multi-jurisdiction investigation into the fire.

The Coastal Fire started on May 11, burned 200 acres, destroyed 20 homes and damaged 11 more.

The NDA is between the City of Laguna Beach, Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Orange County Fire Authority and the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety.

The item comes after a group of Laguna Niguel residents filed a lawsuit against Southern California Edison, claiming the Coastal Fire was sparked by the company’s faulty equipment. SCE officials have noted that there was “circuit activity” near the area when the blaze started.

Councilmember Toni Iseman pulled the item from the consent calendar because of her observations of the California Public Utilities Commission, she explained. Referencing some recent regional news, she said there has been some conduct of “making deals with the people who they’re supposed to be guarding.”

“So when I saw this, I was concerned,” she said. “There may be a very good reason (for the NDA) but, if in fact the PUC is protecting Edison, then we have to be hyper-vigilant.”

Anytime there’s a potential involvement of a major utility company, a variety of entities take part in the investigation and review different pieces based on their expertise, explained LBFD Fire Chief Mike Garcia.

“What the NDA does is allow them to share their findings with our fire investigator, Orange County, CalFire. It allows for open communication so this whole thing can be put together, packaged and then it goes through the attorney general’s office,” he said. “Otherwise, what you find is (that) individual entities will keep their information because they don’t want it to leak, they don’t want it to get out, get discredited, and all these other things and you have no sharing and you have a disfunction in the investigation team.”

Typically, there’s one investigation unit and no need for an NDA because it’s done internally, he added. The City of Laguna Beach would do the same if the city was the only entity involved in a fire, he added. They wouldn’t bring that information to the council until it’s gone through the proper findings, reporting, and the legal system to be allowed to be released. 

“This just formalizes it,” he said. “So there is nobody in there that’s going to be giving this information to anybody else that could be used against what’s going on.”

They have also yet to hear the cause of the recent Emerald Fire, Iseman pointed out.

The Emerald Fire isn’t in their jurisdiction to investigate, Garcia said. “The blaze burned open space and county land, so the administrative unit is Orange County Fire Authority.”

“That fire was not in our city, we’re not a part of the investigating team so we didn’t sign an NDA,” he said. 

There were no other council or any public comments on the matter.

Council approves smoke and houses

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Cyrus Polk

The Coastal Fire burns just over the hill from Laguna Beach 

Earlier in the meeting, Garcia gave a report on the Coastal Fire response. 

The first report came in around 2:45 p.m. on May 11 as a small vegetation fire near The Ranch, Garcia explained. Laguna Beach responded to the incident location, along with a full vegetation response from OCFA. The initial report confirmed that the fire that was just under one acre at the time.

“It was slowly creeping uphill, against the wind,” Garcia said. 

It was a heavily vegetated area with steep terrain, he explained. The wind was blowing embers, causing various spot fires along the opposite canyon wall. While ground level winds were about 6-7 mph, up higher they were about 12-18 mph with 25 mph gusts, Garcia noted.

The strong winds continued to drive the fire up the canyon and into the Laguna Niguel neighborhood. 

The incident command post was established and a plan of attack was implemented. Orders quickly went out for additional help. The city also opened up the Emergency Operations Center to assist further.

Click open story button to continue reading…

 

“Our hearts are with the 20 individuals that lost their homes, the 11 that were damaged, but many more could have been damaged (or lost),” Garcia said. This could have been much, much worse for all of us.”

It took approximately 600 firefighters and nearly a week to fully extinguish the fire. For two days, there were hot spots and visible flames in the canyon, Garcia noted. 

“Laguna Beach was lucky,” Garcia said. “The winds were blowing away from our property toward Laguna Niguel, who weren’t so lucky.”

They were lucky in 2018 when the Aliso Fire burned about 175 acres of vegetation near Top of the World before being contained and again when the Emerald Fire burned 154 acres near Emerald Bay in February without destroying any homes.

“I’ve said it several other times with smaller fires we don’t hear about,” he added.

They were fortunate that all local and regional resources were available, including helicopters and fixed-wing planes.

Council approves dropping retardant

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Photo by Scott Brashier

A plane drops retardant on the Coastal Fire near homes in Laguna Niguel 

The helicopter refilling station helped tremendously during this fire, Garcia added. On May 11, they had 81 “hover fills” with more than 23,000 gallons. The next day on May 12, they conducted 55 hover fills and 15,000 gallons of water. The turnaround time was tremendous, he added and the multiple helicopters deployed to the incident were constantly dropping water on the blaze. 

“That truly is a force multiplier,” he said. 

It was a great investment and they hope to have more ready to go in the future.

As the statewide drought continues and vegetation fuel moistures are low – and declining – for the season, they need to focus on how to improve protection, Garcia said. 

“We are doing what we can to provide protections for our community in modifying fuels to lessen the flame and heat output to buy time for our community to evacuate and get out, find a place for our firefighters where the fire intensity changes where they can make a stand and actually try to do some protective actions for the home,” Garcia said. “But we know this is an uphill battle as we find resistance at every step, but we continue forward.”

They need homeowners to prepare their homes and vegetation for a better chance of survival, he added. Resident should prepare their families with an organized plan to leave and when it’s time, get out. 

“This may sound like fear-mongering, but it’s really not,” Garcia said. “It’s the reality of living in a heavily vegetated community with a real threat of wildfire. It is beautiful, we have to be cautious, we have to prepare and we have to continue to move forward to provide these protections.”

Answering a question from council, Garcia noted homeowners can also take measures to harden their home in addition to defensible space and safe vegetation plans. 

Watching the fire, Mayor Sue Kempf noticed how quickly it moved and engulfed the nearby homes. 

“It was really a frightening thing to watch,” she said. 

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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