'A spark and a gust away from a serious problem'

In a typical January, the hillside above Dartmoor Street in North Laguna is almost awash in radiant green.

This year is different.

The hillside has a pocket of green, but it is largely surrounded by dirt and brown and gray brittle plants that are dying for more water as Southern California endures one of its driest periods on record.

Derek Ostensen, 32, who has spent his life hiking the hills surrounding Laguna Beach, said this year is exceptionally dry.

"Certainly there's been other major drought events, but current trends are particularly disconcerting," said Ostensen, president of Laguna Canyon Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving native habitats.

The only reason a small portion of the hillside is green is because it is irrigated.

The plants aren't reliant on rainfall like their mature brethren, such as goldenbush, farther down the hill.

A branch from a parched goldenbush plant is dull gray, sapped of color and most nutrients.

Such plants aren't dead, but they are "struggling," according to Ostensen.

When plants dry out to abnormal levels, an entire ecosystem feels the effect.

"When landscape suffers stress, it's much more difficult for a habitat to return to proper health," Ostensen said.

Drought conditions also create competition from invasive plant species and make vegetation more susceptible to disease.

"Drought [and its impact on a plant's health] is on par with a weakened immune system in humans," Ostensen said.

Santa Ana suffered one of its lowest rainfall amounts on record — 3.25 inches — in 2013, according to the National Weather Service. Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a statewide drought emergency.

"The fuel moisture levels in the vegetation on the hillsides are at a critical stage and continue to dry out," a Laguna Beach staff report said.

Matt Lawson, a member of the city's Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Committee, noted during last week's City Council meeting that conditions are ripe for a fire.

"We're a spark and a gust away from a serious problem," Lawson said.

Lagunans know only too well what can happen when high temperatures mix with brisk winds and a spark, as the 1993 firestorm revealed. The blaze charred more than 14,000 acres and caused $528 million in damage, according to Orange County Fire Department, now the Orange County Fire Authority.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation is partnering with the Laguna Beach County Water District on a three-year project, the Viejo Habitat Restoration, which began above Dartmoor Street in 2012, Ostensen said.

The water district owns the land, which has an underground reservoir.

Part of the hill is cleared as a fuel break, an area void of vegetation that can slow or stop a fire's progress.

"The district deserves a lot of credit for initiating the project, with positive benefits for native habitat and slope stability," Ostensen said.

The foundation is also in the second of a five-year restoration project on a city-owned, 3.7-acre plot at the Big Bend area of Laguna Canyon.

Volunteers and foundation staff planted sagebrush, deerweed and wild sage in the space, which used to be a dirt lot, during the first year of the project.

Workers created trails made of bark chips that meander throughout the property alongside coastal sage scrub, which smells like pine.

A $117,000 Orange County Transportation Authority grant helped pay for a portion of the restoration, expected to cost $140,000, while the foundation raised the remaining money.

Habitat restoration provides a way for animals, such as bobcats, deer and birds, to move about so they don't become dependent on one particular water or plant source.

Movement between areas also protects against inbreeding, which can cause genetic defects in animals, Ostensen said.

Variety of species is critical to a thriving environment, Ostensen said.

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