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When Fires Come Again

As printed in the San Diego Daily Transcript; November 15, 2007

Erik Bruvold

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wildfires are a natural part of the California landscape. In October 1889, the Los Angeles Times reported that two wildfires in San Diego and Orange County had consumed almost 800,000 acres, making those fires four times larger than last month’s Witch Creek blaze and eight times larger than the Harris fire. Many native California plants are adapted to survive fire. For some, such as Coulter Pines and Manzanita bushes, periodic fires play a vitally important and beneficial role in the plant’s life cycle.

Recognizing the near ubiquitous nature of fires in our state helps put in perspective the commentaries that have been heard in the days following last month’s fires. Some have called for a back country building moratorium, arguing that we can avoid the loss of property and reduce the risk to people if we simply stop building where fire takes place. These arguments, it seems, ignore the fact that fire can occur nearly anywhere in our state. Major wildfires have occurred in the past few years in California’s mountain forests, in the state’s semi-arid coastal hills, and in the grasslands of the Central Valley. Before the Cedar, Witch Creek and Harris fires, one of the worst fires in San Diego’s history, the Normal Heights fire of 1985, started in an urban canyon surrounded by 50 year old neighborhoods. Earlier this year a fire consumed large parts of Griffith Park, an oasis in Los Angeles that is completely surrounded by urban development. Except for the rain-forests located in the far northwest corner of the state, there is no place in California that is completely safe from wind-driven wildfires.

Others have suggested that the fires show the folly of having land in public ownership or that the Endangered Species Act and restrictions on habitat loss are somehow responsible for the wildfires. If we just had more “clearing” or controlled burns, these critics contend, San Diego could have been saved from the devastating loss of 10 lives and of more than a billion dollars of property loss. Such reasoning, however, is at odds with the historical record. One of the worst wildfires in our state’s history, at least in terms of loss of life, was the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, with most of the fire occurring in developed neighborhoods. As the residents of the East Bay discovered, plants used in backyard landscaping can create intensely burning fires that can explosively race through a community. While more active landscape management can help, it is not a panacea that can stop Santa Ana-driven fires.

There are some conclusions, however, that can be drawn from the events of last month. One seems to be that it is possible to minimize the impacts of wildfire through smart home design, intelligent construction, and homeowner association covenants. I say this from experience. Our home is located in 4S Ranch, directly to the west of the communities in Rancho Bernardo most impacted by the Witch Creek fire. Given the strength of the winds on Sunday night, my wife and I had every expectation that some homes in our community would be lost as we hurriedly packed our cars and evacuated in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning.

And yet, 4S Ranch did not lose a single home. Though the fire burned immediately adjacent to our community, the design standards required by builders in our otherwise typical California suburban masterplanned community performed as they were designed. Where the community’s HOA maintains and irrigates firebreaks, the fire was stopped cold. Though there are a number of anecdotal reports of embers in the air, the enclosed eaves and vents required on 4S homes kept the embers from igniting the structure. While some residents have reported landscape damage, the rigorous covenants restricting the kind of landscaping allowed and the requirement that there be defensible space between flammable landscape and the main structure kept the fire away from homes.

The success of the fire protection measures in place in 4S Ranch can help inform the decision makers who are putting together plans for the rebuilding of impacted communities in Rancho Bernardo. The City should expeditiously investigate, without unduly slowing down the reconstruction process, whether boxed eaves, the use of fire resident materials on exterior surfaces and other fire-safety steps could be required in areas being rebuilt. The HOA and landscape maintenance districts (LMD) in the impacted neighborhoods should consider putting in place new landscaping rules that would minimize the amount of combustible vegetation next to structures. These groups should work with the City to find ways to create HOA and LMD-maintained firebreaks in the finger canyons and slopes in northern Rancho Bernardo. Even small steps would help, such as removing the fire-damaged Shore Pines and Cypress trees from the road medians adjacent to open space.

The temptation, as the problems of underinsurance and delays in reconstruction are felt, will be to avoid imposing any new requirements on homeowners trying to rebuild. New rules, in almost all instances, mean delays and people want to finish reconstruction as soon as possible and get back to some sense of normalcy.

Knowing friends who have lost their homes, I am extremely sympathetic to that desire and the importance of speeding the recovery. But it is important that policy makers think about what can be done to better help communities survive when fire inevitably returns to our community. California will continue to grow and preventive steps undertaken now can help increase the chances that more homes will survive the next firestorm.