If you think you hear bleating in Laguna Beach, you’re probably right.
A third herd of goats is coming to town this week ahead of California’s fire season to chew up the thick vegetation that sprouted after the soggy rainy season.
The 200-strong herd will bring the number of goats assigned to the task to nearly 800. It’s the first time Laguna Beach has brought in so many goats to cut down on fire-prone brush, said Fire Prevention Officer Ray Lardie.
Last year, 150 goats cleared all potential wildfire fuel zones and went home early. This year, the wet winter resulted in an overwhelming crop of vegetation, Lardie said — too much for one or two goat herds to tackle, even with their ravenous appetites.
This season combines exceptional vegetation growth with years of drought-ridden dry brush. Some of the plants that have grown this year — invasive mustard and thistle — die quickly and turn into dry fuel, said Fire Marshal James Brown. In some places, the mustard grew to 7 feet tall, Lardie said.
“We put the goats in for a day or two where you couldn’t see the goats but you could see the mustard moving, so you knew they were in there,” Lardie said.
The Fire Department recognized the need for reinforcements about a month ago, Brown said, but because of hang-ups with the Peruvian goatherder’s visa, the new crew is arriving only this week from Indacochea Sheep Ranch in Riverside County.
The newcomers will be placed in South Laguna near Ceanothus Drive and head south on the inland side to Three Arch Bay before heading to Nyes Place.
The first two 300-goat herds started work in March and have completed zones in North Laguna, behind the Festival of Arts grounds, above City Hall and in Arch Beach Heights. One herd is now working its way from Thurston Middle School to Top of the World Elementary before heading toward Alta Laguna Park. The other is grazing in Bluebird Canyon.
This year, instead of letting the goats meander from zone to zone as they typically do, the Fire Department has had to load them onto trailers to complete certain zones on time, Brown said.
For example, usually a herd starts grazing around Emerald Bay in North Laguna and works its way south in time to feed on the grassy hills behind the Pageant of the Masters venue before the summer show begins. But this year, the vegetation in North Laguna was so thick that the goats weren’t going to make it to the pageant area in time, so they were transported over and then taken back to finish in North Laguna.
“We’re looking at, ‘OK, which areas have the most critical infrastructure, critical buildings … and most vegetation growth?’” Brown said. “Based on that, we’re doing more hopscotching than we would like to, but it’s what’s needed because of the amount of growth we’ve had this year. It’s crazy.”
With its 16,000 acres of open space, nearly all of Laguna Beach is designated by CalFire as a “very high” fire hazard severity zone.
During last year’s fire season, the Aliso fire broke out in June below Laguna’s Top of the World neighborhood and scorched 175 acres before firefighters could fully contain it. Five firefighters were injured, but no structures were damaged, officials said.
Last month, the City Council approved several sweeping measures to the tune of nearly $23 million to strengthen the city’s wildfire and emergency readiness. The vote followed a presentation of the Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Subcommittee, which was convened in January to assess and research how to reduce the city’s wildfire risk as well as develop a plan with funding sources.
A chunk of the subcommittee’s suggestions focused on expanding fuel modification — vegetation management — efforts and educating the public on cutting back brush on private properties. The Fire Department is in the process of obtaining permits to add fuel modification zones, Brown said.
In addition, the department will welcome a new fire engine designed specifically to fight wildfires with a christening and outreach event from 9 to 11 a.m. Sept. 7 at the fire station at 285 Agate St.