Nyes Canyon will be added to the 14 areas in Laguna Beach that get special attention from the fire department.

The City Council approved on Tuesday the addition of a city-maintained fuel break around the entire upper Arch Beach Heights neighborhood, as recommended by Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse.

"Fuel breaks create defensible space," La Tendresse said.

California's Department of Forestry began creating fuel breaks in Laguna in the mid-1950s. They were discontinued from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s because of environmentalists concerns.

They were resumed in 1981 using hand crews, which were replaced in 1990 by the goats that continue to munch fuel breaks throughout the city.

"Creating a new fuel break costs money — the last one was $124,000 and requires the city to go through an extensive process," La Tendresse said.

Applicants, in this case the city, must go through the California Environmental Quality Act process, obtain a Coastal Development permit, secure Planning Commission approval and complete a detailed biological report that identifies and maps endangered plants and animals and proposes mitigation measures to protect them.

La Tendresse wants to get started because this year has been extraordinarily dry so far.

"We are in a severe drought," he reported. "In a typical year, the city gets approximately 13 to 14 inches of rain. During the past two years, rainfall totals have been almost 50% (less) than the expected average," he said.

"In a typical year, fuel moisture reading would be about 60% in October. Currently we are 40%. Essentially, the hills are dead."

The fire department has been working with a wildland fire specialist to review the conditions, LaTendresse said.

The specialist has made recommendations on how to better defend the city from the two worst-case scenarios: fire in the parks that encircle the city during a Santa Ana wind, such as the one in 1993; and a fire in one of the city's canyons during normal onshore winds that threaten homes in a matter of minutes.

Fuel breaks help in both cases, LaTendresse said.

"We need to move forward as aggressively as possible," said Matt Lawson, a resident of Diamond Crestview who was recently appointed to the Disaster Preparedness Committee.

The council directed the fire department to work with the committee, prepare a three-year plan to implement the recommendations for 12 more fuel breaks, create a plan to help expedite the regulatory process and increase fines for smoking in the open space to $1,000.