A second herd of goats will start foraging in open spaces surrounding Laguna Beach to help maintain a fuel break beginning June 1. The city’s Fire Department requested adding more of the four-footed fuel-consumers due to this winter’s scant rainfall, resulting in plants with low moisture levels that easily burn.
The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) described conditions across the state from January to April as “likely to go down as one of the driest ever.” As of April 24, Cal Fire had responded to 680 wildfires since the start of the year, 200 more than the annual average.
“We evaluate on an annual basis to see how we are doing,” said Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. “If we have to bring in a second herd, we’ll bring in a second herd,” he added, explaining that the city usually augments the goat herds every other year or so.
For example, the city’s supply of goats swelled to 700 in 2011 to deal with the burst of greenery following a record-breaking rainy season, but by last January 2012 the herd at shrunk by half.
Currently only 150 goats roam the hillsides above town, but that herd will be increased to 200 goats over the next couple of weeks. LaTendresse noted that each goatherd can manage up to 350 animals at a time. A second 200-goat herd will arrive next month, allowing one to chomp and bleat through brush on the slopes behind the Festival of Arts grounds and the other to apply their jaws to brush flanking the fire road between Top of the World and Arch Beach Heights neighborhoods.
“We feel very vulnerable and are always happy to see the goats come back,” enthused Arch Beach Heights resident Jon Firestone whose home abuts the open space along the fire road. He also enjoys the goats on their own terms, feeding and naming them, getting to know the herder and helping out by supplying water. Seeing them “always puts a smile on my face,” he said, both for the pleasure they bring to onlookers and the fire protection they provide, which he said, easily trump any arguments he hears against them.
Fire fighters will evaluate the herd’s progress after a month, by which time LaTendresse guessed the goats will have gotten the vegetation along the fire road under control.
The city budgets $125,000 annually to weed abatement by one herd of goats. The additional herd costs $5,000 a month. The city contracts with Pedro Indacochea, a sheep ranch in Wildomar that also rents out goats for weed abatement.