Oct. 27--LAGUNA BEACH -- Citing recent media reports that utility lines and poles may have been the primary cause in this month's deadly fires in Northern California, Laguna Beach City Councilman Bob Whalen pushed for immediate action to underground utility lines and poles citywide.
"Laguna knows all too well about the devastation caused by wildfires and my heart goes out to all those whose lives were changed in an instant by the massive fires in Northern California," Whalen said at the Tuesday, Oct. 24 council meeting, recalling Laguna's devastating 1993 fire that destroyed 440 homes.
With urging from Whalen and the public, the City Council unanimously adopted new policy and funding solutions to underground utility infrastructure. The council established a list of solutions to reduce the threat of severe fires, which included allotting $3 million in available city funds and $4 million available in the next two fiscal years to bury power lines along the city's evacuation routes.
The council also agreed to review funding for similar projects citywide through a ballot measure or initiative.
Whalen outlined financing plan that uses city funds to reduce the cost of burying utilities to residents by 25 to 35 percent from what neighborhoods have had to pay through previous undergrounding assessment districts.
"My goal is to place one or more ballot measures on the November 2018 ballot so voters will have the chance to vote on a citywide financing plan, Whalen said. " It will mean raising taxes, but I am optimistic that voters will see the wisdom of such a plan and realize that it is an essential step to eliminating one source of another disastrous fire in Laguna."
Whalen's plan would also ensure clear evacuation routes in the event of an earthquake where utility poles and lines could fall blocking residents from exiting and emergency personnel from entering.
"The utility companies have refused to help expedite undergrounding, leaving us no choice but to ask our community to support a local funding plan," Mayor Toni Iseman said. "We must get this done to protect lives and property."
Excluding utilities lines along Laguna Canyon Road, which are covered in a separate master plan for the canyon, there are 128,000 feet of overhead utilities citywide, according to a staff report. About 21,000 feet of the overhead utilities are along major evacuation routes, including Bluebird Canyon Road, Park Avenue and Virginia Way. City officials say it would cost $20.4 million to underground utilities in 11 evacuation areas, at a cost of $1,000 per foot.
Also on Tuesday, the council repealed a March ordinance requiring utility companies to underground new and replacement wires and poles. That action followed a settlement agreement reached earlier this month with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
After the city passed the ordinance, the two utilities sued to stop it. Rather than fighting a legal battle, the City Council agreed to the settlement agreement on Oct. 5, which committed the utilities to work with the city to review overhead electric systems and discuss ways to reduce fire risk.
SCE agreed to develop preliminary designs to bury electric facilities along Laguna Canyon Road in 12 months instead of 24 months, and San Diego Gas & Electric agreed to advance the city initial funding for engineering and design costs for the Laguna Canyon Road projects that take place within the next five years.
The city's concerns about burying utility lines are not new. Fires caused by downed poles occurred in Laguna in September 2007, February 2011, September 2012 and in July 2015. In 10 years, there have been more than 58 accidents that have downed utility wires and resulted in the closure of Laguna Canyon Road. The most recent occurred Oct. 16, when the road -- one of only three routes in and out of the city -- was closed for 17 hours, said Shohreh Dupuis, director of public works.
City officials called for citywide undergrounding of utilities following the 15-acre wildfire in July 2015 that started when trees fell into utility wires, causing a power surge that sparked flames.
The city "dodged a bullet" with that fire, thanks to favorable winds and firefighters' efforts, Whalen said.
In 2016, he traveled to Sacramento several times to testify on behalf of Senate Bill 1463 authored by state Sen. John Moorlach. The legislation would have required the state to identify areas most at risk for wildfires and the California Public Utilities Commission and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to develop enhanced plans to prevent fires from utility and power lines. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the legislation in September 2016.
"The dangerous overhead electric utility lines which crisscross 60 percent of the city have proven to be an unacceptable hazard," said resident Matt Lawson, who chairs the city's Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee. "Cal Fire classifies some 90 percent of the city within the very highest risk category for brush fires. As I think our Fire Chief will confirm, very few other California cities are at such dire risk."
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