Brittle brush has fire department pushing prevention

It's clear to most that the brush surrounding Laguna Beach is brittle, and the Laguna Beach Fire Department is doing all it can to ameliorate firestorm risk.

"You can't deny we're coming out of a drought year," Laguna Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse said. "Fire season for us this year is early. It's already taking its toll on structures in Ventura [during the Springs Fire in May]."

Subsequent fires have charred Southern California's landscape, including the Silver fire near Banning, which burned more than 20,000 acres earlier this month, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection website.

"Preparing for a fire is a never-ending event," LaTendresse said.

In addition to workers who clear brush, the city has relied on goats. The animals that have eaten brush around Laguna for the past several years have taken on a more important role.

They roam surrounding hillsides, chomping on native chaparral around Thurston Middle School and Alta Laguna Park, which are among 14 fuel modification zones throughout the city, LaTendresse said.

The city paid $125,000 for one herd — about 200 goats — for a year, LaTendresse said. In June, the department brought in a second herd, at about $5,000 per month, he said.

A herd's size — from 75 to 250 — varies depending on the amount of brush, according to LaTendresse.

This week the goats chomped brush behind Thurston Middle School and beyond Toto Loma Lane in South Laguna. The Fire Department will decide within the next few weeks whether to keep the second herd once brush is cleared near Toto Loma Lane.

The goats will then move to an area around Top of the World Elementary School, LaTendresse said.

He said fire authorities ensure that endangered habitat is protected before moving goats to a particular area.

But the fire department needs residents to help too by making their houses more fire safe, LaTendresse said.

"Can you trim trees or remove leaves from the gutter?" LaTendresse asks.

According to a 2009 addition to the city's municipal code, Laguna Beach residents may not have weeds or any material deemed a fire hazard on their property.

Artichoke thistle, arundo, pampass grass and cape ivy have been deemed dangers to public health and safety because they can create a fire or flood hazard, the code said.

At the June 4 City Council meeting, fire division chief Dan Stefano said almost all of the 550 property owners identified as harboring excessive weeds had removed the plants, according to minutes from the meeting.

Fire officials helped the 50 remaining properties reach compliance, LaTendresse said.

In June, the City Council authorized the Fire Department to spend $125,000 to come up with another fire-prevention project.

Fire officials and an independent consultant are working on a proposal to boost fire prevention and will present the plan to the City Council on Sept. 3, according to LaTendresse.

The California Department of Forestry has declared Laguna Beach a "high-fire hazard" zone, and building codes are stricter now to comply with regulations, LaTendresse said.

Separately, the department is looking to update building fire codes by the end of the year, according to LaTendresse.

The minimum width of a fire buffer is 195 feet, according to the department's landscape and fuel modification guidelines. The number can vary depending on the terrain and type of vegetation surrounding a building, the guidelines say.

Anyone wishing to build a new structure or do a major remodel contained in one of the department's fire zones must receive a fire code official's approval to obtain a building permit, according to the city's municipal code.

Officials with Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, nestled in the South Laguna hills, are looking at fire safety.

"We plan to install fire sprinklers in the guest rooms and replace all wood [shingle] roofs," owner Mark Christy wrote in an email.

Laguna Beach firefighters are well-prepared for fire season.

They trained with other agencies at an area near the 91 Freeway at the Riverside County border. Training included setting up fire shelters, learning new terminology and communicating by radio, LaTendresse said.

Firefighters also participated in a 24-hour training class that focused on safety and operations. Laguna firefighters have responded to five Southern California fires this year, including the Chariot fire in San Diego County and the Powerhouse fire in the Angeles National Forest.

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