Laguna hot spots to be prioritized

Fire control in Laguna was a hot topic at the June 4 meeting of the City Council.

The City Council directed department staff to develop a priority list of "hot spots" in the city that might need more defensible space — the reduction or elimination of vegetation around structures to reduce the fire danger. The council also directed the city planning staff to explore a defensible space ordinance.

"The No. 1 job of the city is safety," said Councilman Robert Whalen. "It has been 20 years since the (October 1993) fire and we tend to get a little complacent.

"The object of the agenda bill was to raise awareness and to find out what more we could be doing."

Former Design Review Board member Ilse Lenshow reminded the council that Laguna has suffered three devastating fires, all started in open space.

Fire department officials said the most effective way to reduce the threat is by reducing flammable vegetation around structures and in the canyons and other uninhabited lands abutting the city.

Herds of goats and hand crews do much of that work now.

Goat grazing has proved to be the most effective method of controlling vegetation, if not the most popular with environmentalists, who object to the animals indiscriminately eating in one area and depositing seeds in another.

The goats munch a fuel break on the borders of the city, removing non-native, dead or dying plants, usually starting in North Laguna and working their way south. The herd is made up of 75 to 350 goats, depending on density of the brush, the area and weather conditions.

"Currently, we have some of the driest conditions we have ever seen," said Fire Marshal and Division Chief Dan Stefano.

A second herd was brought in June 3 specifically to work on the fire road between Top of the World and Arch Beach Heights.

"Hand crews are used where the goats cannot be used, such as Driftwood where the crown beard grows," Stefano said.

Areas not under Laguna's control require permits from the Orange County Parks department and regular oversight of the animals and the environment.

The city also oversees annual weed- and hazard-mitigation programs, with the participation of the Public Works Department.

"There are 550 parcels we address every year," Stefano said. "About 500 of those are taken care of by the property owners."

The city moves in when the property owners fail to take action. The cost is added to the property owners' tax bill.

The department began a community education program two years ago to foster the creation of defensible space by individual property owners.

"The 1993 fire was the seventh-worst fire disaster in U.S. history," said Matt Lawson, a resident of Diamond Crestview. "This promises to be a particularly dangerous and challenging season.

"Chief Stefano just got back from leading a strike crew up at the Camarillo fire and we have all followed the news about the Powerhouse Fire. This will not be the last."

Lawson said environmental concerns should be balanced against the risks to property and human life, adding that property owners should be required, not just encouraged, to clear defensible space around their structures.

"I would like to see more aggressive city action against owners of property with fire safety issues,' said Planning Commissioner Ken Saddler.

The Fire Department would like to add more fuel-modification zones to the 14 existing ones in the city, Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse said.

However, additional zones would be considered new development and approvals are not a slam dunk. Such action would require going through the California Environmental Quality Act provisions, planning and California Coastal Commission approval processes.

"There are definitely areas we could expand into," LaTendresse said. "We'd like to go into the interior canyons."

A priority list will be developed and presented to the council at a future meeting.

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