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

As the area dries out, landscape, animals — entire ecosystems — suffer. And in Laguna, the thought of fire is never far away.

January 30, 2014|By Bryce Alderton
  • Derek Ostensen, president of Laguna Canyon Foundation, walks up a hillside that the organization and Laguna Beach County Water District are working to restore to its native habitat. Plants in sections of the hillside are extremely brittle due to lack of rainfall.
Derek Ostensen, president of Laguna Canyon Foundation,… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

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.

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