LAGUNA BEACH – A plan to bury utility lines to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in this town might be getting some help from Sacramento.
Laguna Beach officials on Monday announced that legislation initiated by the city is on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
Senate Bill 1463, authored by state Sen. John Moorlach on behalf of Laguna Beach, provides direction to the California Public Utilities Commission to develop enhanced fire mitigation measures to prevent fires caused by overhead electrical lines.
The bill also directs the CPUC to prioritize areas at high risk of fires from overhead utility lines and to describe how the concerns expressed by local governments have been addressed through the process, City Manager John Pietig said in a statement.
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the legislation.
“I am extremely pleased that our months of hard work on this legislation has paid off for Laguna Beach and other cities like ours that face extreme fire risk from above-ground utilities,” said Councilman Bob Whalen, who has traveled to Sacramento a few times in recent months to testify before committees and to consult with legislative staffs.
On Monday he thanked Moorlach for his efforts to push the bill in Sacramento.
“It was an uphill battle with the electric utilities, the cable TV operators and their lobbyists watching our every move,” he said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted in this bill, but it is an important first step and will strengthen our hand as we do battle at the CPUC to make sure that Laguna Beach is recognized as an area for enhanced measures to prevent fires caused by overhead utilities.”
City officials called for citywide “undergrounding” of utilities following a 15-acre wildfire in July 2015 that started when trees fell into utility wires, causing a power surge that sparked flames. Whalen said the city “dodged a bullet” with that fire thanks to favorable winds and firefighters’ efforts. He said he immediately contacted Southern California Edison and urged the utility company to partner with the city to reduce imminent threat of fire.
Whalen and other city officials met with SCE several times. But Pietig said the city chose the legislative route once it became obvious that city officials were not getting “meaningful assistance” from SCE to bury the power lines.
“We can no longer risk the public safety of Laguna Beach by allowing above-ground utilities,” Whalen said then. “A major fire disaster caused by power lines is only a matter of time.”
At that time, Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse said the fire could have been devastating. More than 200 firefighters from other agencies, including the Orange County Fire Authority, assisted the Laguna Beach Fire Department in battling the blaze.
In the past 10 years, there have been at least four fires in Laguna Beach ignited by downed power lines, including one that blocked Laguna Canyon Road for an entire Labor Day weekend. A week ago, the canyon road was closed again for at least eight hours after a car spun and hit a utility pole, knocking down wires. Laguna Canyon Road has been shut down 13 times in the past five years.
“You decrease the hazard, you decrease the risk,” LaTendresse said. “Undergrounding removes sources of ignition, and that lessens the risk of fire. It will also reduce closures of Laguna Canyon Road and improve response times by allowing emergency vehicles access.”
Whalen said he and the city will focus on gaining Brown’s support for the Senate bill. He also plans to contact other cities and counties with similar fire risks, to develop more legislation in January when the Legislature reconvenes.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Whalen asked residents to go onto the city’s website to download a sample letter, fill it out and send it to Brown.
“We’re going to have to push to get this signed,” he said.
Councilman Robert Zur Schmiede and Pietig praised Whalen for his efforts.
“This bill would not have made it out of the Legislature, if not for you,” Zur Schmiede said.
In 1993, a massive firestorm, attributed to arson, engulfed this seaside community, setting the surrounding hills ablaze and consuming more than 400 homes. That blaze remains the most destructive fire in Orange County history.
Laguna Beach is surrounded by wildlands and hilly topography, with only two roadways in and out. Since the 1993 fire, the city has put preventative measures in place. Homes with shake shingle roofs are forbidden, firefighters are better trained and equipped to fight brush fires, the water district has two more reservoirs and backup generators, and City Hall has tighter regulations and prepares with disaster simulations.
About 40 percent of the city’s utility lines have already been placed underground – almost all of it paid by residents through assessment districts.
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