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South Laguna Fuel Modification Project problematic

South Laguna conceptual map

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Courtesy of Mike Beanan

Conceptual Perimeter Wildfire Prevention/Suppression Map utilizing high purity recycled water from the Coastal Treatment Plant

Addressing Agenda Item #21

Mayor & City Council,

Thank you for your tireless efforts to prevent and protect Laguna Beach from annual wildfire threats.

As a 40-year resident living adjacent to the South Laguna Greenbelt Urban Fringe Area, I appreciate the careful removal of dead or diseased trees for wildfire protection. However, several aspects of the proposed South Laguna Fuel Modification Project remain problematic.


The steep coastal terrain surrounding the project area is unique to Laguna Beach in forming a relatively undisturbed virgin habitat for globally endangered South Maritime Chaparral and the wildlife depending upon this area for foraging and shelter. Native vegetation remains green due to the adaptive ability of plants to be “fog feeders” capturing marine layer moisture throughout the year. Native plants and trees add a protective natural oil layer to retain moisture during scorching summers. Consequently, routine hiking surveys and historical records have yet to discover any evidence of massive wildfires.

The City’s Fuel Modification Guidelines adopted in 2005 and again in 2010, reflects development standards common in all surrounding South County communities and the Orange County Fire Authority to maintain a graduated, multicut, biomulched series of Fuel Modification Zones (FMZs) rather than fire breaks on steep, inaccessible hillsides. FMZ A & B are designated to be routinely irrigated to maintain safe hydration as a preventive measure and first line of defense during a wildfire event. Despite multiple requests for a perimeter wildfire water suppression system, the Fire Department and South Coast Water District have failed to consider the obvious multiple benefits of an independent, high purity recycled water system among strategies for long term protection of South Laguna and the City as a whole. Simply stated, water prevents and suppresses fire. To date, there has been no application of the City’s 2005 Fuel Modification Guidelines in South Laguna to provide an independent source of new water within the prospect of a projected, long-term drought.

Unintended Consequences

The proposed project to dramatically remove native vegetation to achieve proposed spacing requirements on steep, South facing hillsides will exacerbate wildfire threats. De-vegetated terrain exposes the fragile soil mantle to harsh sun to elevate surrounding ambient temperatures and dehydrate remaining plants and trees. Native groundcover significantly shades and cools soil temperatures while stabilizing slopes during storm events. Removing vegetation achieves the opposite result to increase soil erosion and silt covering protected tide pools in Laguna Marine Protected Areas.

Exposed soils also add to the urban heat sink. Remaining trees limbed up to mitigate fire ladders unintentionally exposes the tree’s trunk to harsh Southern sun and intense afternoon ocean glare to scorch trees that eventually die, thus adding to wildfire threats. Exposed soils invite introduction of dry, brown grasses and future ember alleys accelerating the spread of wildfires. Evidence of this dynamic is clearly visible among hillsides previously grazed by goats or manually de-vegetated.

Removing native vegetation will diminish the City’s dedication to address Climate Change impacts and opportunities for achieving carbon sequestration goals. Native plants store carbon and mitigate warming temperatures through ground shading. Plants also add oxygen to the environment. The proposed project will dramatically reduce the ability of the Greenbelt to add environmental and economic benefits to the community. Studies by real estate experts have shown, nature reserves add as much as 19 percent to adjacent property values and the benefit extends throughout a surrounding neighborhood.

In addition to unintended environmental impacts, education programs present a false equivalency to promote aggressive de-vegetation. Comparing South Laguna, for instance to the Paradise Wildfire is disingenuous since the community of Paradise is a collection of mobile homes surrounded by expansive forests clustered together with propane tanks supplying fuel and energy. South Laguna, in contrast, is a coastal area with well-maintained homes lacking outside propane tanks near an abundant supply of recycled water infrastructure.

South Laguna’s small streets present another challenge for wildfire threats. Fire Department trucks appear to be typical of modern suburban communities with wide streets as opposed to more compact trucks typical among forested communities with limited access. The present policy to protect Fire Department personnel and equipment is understandable but can mean large urban designed equipment will not be able to enter a compact older neighborhood to suppress wildfires. In effect, residents are left on their own to combat approaching embers responsible for spot fires.

During the 1993 Laguna Wildfire, I was among residents who formed a hasty fire watch network to use water to suppress embers in North Laguna and save numerous homes. The wildfire subsequently, avoided Cliff Drive homes and jumped five lanes of Coast Highway to burn homes in Emerald Bay.

The present plan for significant de-vegetation of steep hillsides will introduce a greater wildfire threat by adding large areas of highly flammable brown grasses requiring expensive maintenance and future habitat rehabilitation.

A 30-Year Plan

California will experience a series of severe drought conditions over the next 30 years. Wildfire threats can be addressed with a systematic long-term approach utilizing available unallocated supplies of new, independent water resources coupled with prudent, routine grooming of the Greenbelt urban interface.

South Coast Water District has reclaimed water lines along Coast Highway with outlets installed to supply recycled water to Mission Hospital and other clients. Increasing delivery of recycled water to hillsides above Mission Hospital is essential to protect this critical First Response facility. Extending the recycled water line to the proposed project areas will add additional moisture to maintain safe hydration of native plants and be a determining factor in suppressing an on-coming wildfire. Irrigated FMZs, a common feature in all surrounding cities, is a development standard presently ignored for consideration in the proposed project area.

Title 22 recycled water is an independent resource to significantly add more water before and during a wildfire event. This feature allows Fire Departments full access to potable water supplies otherwise tapped by individual homeowners seeking to suppress ember showers. Recycled water, however, can be problematic for firefighters since latent Constituents of Emerging Concern (CECs) are likely vaporized and inhaled during high heat fire events. Fortunately, compact water filtration units strategically placed can polish recycled water to potable standards and distribute this new water to FMZ A & B to protect firefighters and homeowners from CECs.

Additional independent supplies of high purity “new water” will maintain a green buffer zone next to homes while reducing the burden of ever-increasing insurance rates. Just as interior sprinklers can mitigate fire insurance costs, an independent supply of new water will allow homeowners to negotiate reductions in insurance rates. Interviews with firefighters reveal their preference to enter vegetative areas that are green rather than brown.

Generous State and Federal grants are now readily available for recycled water infrastructure to address wildfire and drought conditions. Studies have shown, as much as ½ of water demands can be met with recycled water supplies. The City of Laguna Beach remains the only city in South Orange County lacking recycled water despite surrounding older cities, like Dana Point, with a robust recycled water infrastructure. More recycled water upcycled for wildfire prevention and suppression presents the added benefit of reducing ocean discharges of Laguna’s 1.87 million gallons per day of secondary sewage adjacent to State MPAs.

Going Forward

Wildfires will continue to threaten the well-being of South Laguna for the next 30 years or more and should be addressed as a long-term public infrastructure program. Extensive wildfire fear campaigns diminish a thoughtful approach to prudent planning and adds unintended consequences to increase wildfire conditions. Drought mandates requiring less use of potable water supplies will add additional stress to native vegetation already suffering from known anthropogenic impacts to climate change.

Following the devastating San Francisco Earthquake 100 years ago, city planners introduced large cisterns among street intersections throughout the city’s steep terrain as a pre-emptive measure for any future fire event. Laguna Beach should consider a similar system to take advantage of gravity in storing and distributing water for wildfire prevention and suppression.

The proposed project needs to incorporate a long-term plan to create a green zone instead of a Brownbelt and access readily available high purity recycled water along Coast Highway as one of the best measures to protect and preserve the many benefits of the Laguna Greenbelt to our community. Water puts out fire and:

“Without water, a firefighter is just a spectator” – Retired Laguna Beach Firefighter.

Thank you for reviewing and incorporating my comments and recommendations to the South Laguna Fuel Modification Project. 

Mike Beanan

South Laguna

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