Magnificent homes perched atop the ridges overlooking the brilliant blue Pacific, like teeth set in a muscular jaw. After the great fire tore through Laguna Beach nearly 30 years ago, only one house on Skyline Drive was left standing amid the devastated ruins.
Bizarrely, miraculously, but not inexplicably, the Parks’ house remained perfectly intact. There was the volcanic pumice roof, of course, which could not burn. And the eaves encased in stucco. But it was the thick green fingers of ice plant carpeting the slope below that stopped the fire in its tracks and saved the house, its owners said.
“Ice plant! We love the ice plant. It’s the best thing in the world,” Susan Parks said at the time. “No trees or shrubs within 150 feet of the house. Just ice plant. Some of our neighbors really hated it, but it’s done its job for us. My son Tyler pretty much planted the whole hill — whenever he was bad, we made him do it. He’s our hero!”
Many of the multi-million dollar homes now burning in the Coastal fire in Laguna Niguel went up not long after the Laguna Beach fire, with “lessons learned” still fresh in mind. Ice plant was on many slopes, but didn’t work its magic. The canyons that burned — apparently a mix of city, county and private land — were dry and overgrown and ready to explode.
“I was in Laguna Niguel, just a mile from that neighborhood, a few weeks ago and all people wanted to talk about was overgrowth and the risk of fire,” said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley. “We need to start paying serious attention to overgrowth and replace these non-drought-resistant plants that were planted decades ago. We need to get rid of these dead or diseased pine trees that go up in flames immediately.
“It’s like an infrastructure project,” she continued. “The county needs to partner with cities and homeowners associations more seriously to get this done — in the face of climate change, the cost of doing nothing is just too high.”
Concern about the dry tinder blanketing Southern California — ready to be lit like a match — is acute up and down the entire state. The cause of this blaze is under investigation by the Orange County Fire Authority, but in the meantime, Southern California Edison told state regulators that there was unusual “circuit activity occurring close in time to the reported time of the fire” on Wednesday.
The California Public Utilities Commission is conducting a staff investigation “to assess the compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations,” spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.
As the winds howled and sky filled with smoke Wednesday, officials asked locals to ease up on water use.
Low water pressure has hampered numerous fire responses in Southern California over the years, but officials with the Moulton Niguel Water District – primarily responsible for providing water to the fire area – said it wasn’t much of a factor this time around.
Often, panicked people grab hoses and douse their homes and gardens in an effort to keep them from burning. But that drains the system of water needed for firefighting. Officials swiftly asked residents to turn off their irrigation on Wednesday, and folks largely complied.
“We were able to manage the water pressure successfully – that’s something you have to contend with,” said Joone Lopez, general manager of the district.
It’s an intricate dance. Water systems are intricate webs of pipes and pumps and storage tanks and data systems that can monitor and manipulate the flow to where it’s most needed. This fire was in the “920 zone,” said Matt Collings, assistant general manager – which means the tank closest to it is 920 feet above sea level.
“That’s the tank we were keeping a close eye on, pushing water up both sides of the hill to continue to feed that tank. It was really quite amazing. (Firefighters) had several different hydrants being run at the same time – I haven’t seen quite so many fire hydrants being run all at once,” Collings said.
Firefighters remain on scene and hot spots may flare up, but tank 920 is being replenished and nearly back to full. “If things take a turn, we’re prepared to continue the response,” he said.
While police and firefighters are the visible face of these disasters, water workers are first responders as well. About 20 Moulton Niguel employees were in the field Wednesday to make sure the emergency workers had water to fight the fire with, and another dozen or so were in the office managing systems and planning next steps.
“The big thing I want to stress is the importance of investment in our water system before it’s needed,” Lopez said. “It’s moments like this that show how coordination and investment really save lives and property. There’s a lot more that we can and should do. We’re going to see more of these, and we need to be prepared. That’s going to come at a cost, not just in money, but in participation. We’re going to be challenged – by fire, by drought – and we all have to work together.”
Clear the canyons
City officials weren’t immediately able to detail brush-clearing efforts in the area of the fire, but the importance of such efforts can’t be overstated, officials said.
Goats are common sights on the hills in Laguna Beach, dutifully munching fuel as hand crews whack back vegetation. Organizations such as the Irvine Ranch Conservancy champion the removal of invasive plants and grasses that can easily ignite, and replanting with drought- and fire-tolerant species.
“Wildfires are among the most destructive events that can occur in urban wildlands,” says the Conservancy’s website. “While naturally occurring fires have been an important part of the historic landscape of Southern California, too-frequent fires pose a deadly threat to the land and surrounding communities, permanently altering the landscape. Shifts in wind and weather patterns brought on by climate change, combined with human transport and development activities, can fuel the frequency and severity of fires, particularly within the Southern California region.”
On a recent tour with the Conservancy, Supervisor Foley was struck by the virtues of the lemonade berry tree, a humble bit of foliage that’s drought-tolerant, holds water, and thus is hard to burn.
“There are a lot of non-drought-resistant plants out there that need to be removed,” she said. “This is a regional issue. We all have to work together and get it done.”
Source: Orange County Register