Watching with his wife Jan as flames darted through the dry brush uphill from their house on Ocean Vista Drive this past Sunday, and just feet away from the Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park, Curt Bartsch had the thought: where were the goats when you needed them?
Bartsch put the question to the City Council on Tuesday night, wanting to know why the hills above their South Laguna neighborhood weren’t being grazed by goats, a program the city uses on other open hills in an attempt to keep dry and flammable brush to a minimum.
“We avoided a disaster but that doesn’t mean the problem’s solved,” he said. “All we know is we’ve got dry brush back there, no goats and nothing being done for fuel modification.”
Goats herding in the hills of South Laguna could have deterred the brush fire there Sunday morning, agreed both the city manager and the fire chief but the California Coastal Commission, which holds current jurisdiction over the property, won’t allow it.
City Manager John Pietig said getting the Coastal Commission to permit goat-grazing or hand crews to clear the dry brush has been difficult. A portion of the property, the portion burning Sunday, falls under the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission.
Known as the Driftwood property, the Coastal Commission reached a settlement agreement with its owner, the Athens Group, that resulted in a conservation easement held by the California Conservation Agency, Pietig told the council.
As part of that agreement, the land will eventually be dedicated to a public agency, but the city isn’t ready to accept any offer, said Pietig, until certain stipulations are met.
Before the city would consider taking title, he said, the hillside would need to be stabilized, a fuel modification plan in place and adequate flood-control drainage installed. “There are difficulties obtaining approval from the Coastal Commission to implement those types of improvements so that the city could take the property while responsibly mitigating risks associated with that ownership,” Pietig said. Discussions, he said, continue.
“With the fire we’ve experienced, I think they should be more receptive to a request,” suggested council member Toni Iseman. Pietig said he’d approach the commission again.
Bartsch said watching the helicopter water-drops and firefighters climbing the hill gave him a taste of reality. In the 12 years he’s lived here, he’s seen goats one time on the hills around his home. “That made us feel like we’re like the rest of the city, we get goats, too,” he said. “It feels like a delicate hot potato. I can’t believe…a goat takes precedence over lives and property. To me, that’s just the bottom line.”