SANDAG agrees to pursue wider assault on excessbrush
By: DAVE DOWNEY – Staff Writer Officials seek compromise with wildlife agencies
SAN DIEGO — Hoping to limit the threat posed bydisastrous wildfires, regional officials decided Friday to seek federalauthorization to clear a greater amount of vegetation around homes and toregularly thin backcountry brush.
Prompted by the mayor of Poway, whose city lost 90 homes to October’s WitchCreek fire, the San Diego Association of Governments’ board voted 19-0 to directits regional planning committee to open talks with federal and state wildlifeagencies on the matter early next year.
Approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serviceand other agencies would be required for a vegetation thinning program becausemany plants elected officials want to cut back provide habitat for imperiledspecies.
And San Diego County, as a result of its diverse coastal, inland valley,mountain and desert landscapes, is home to more endangered animals and plantsthan any other county in the nation.
Poway Mayor Mickey Cafagna told his colleagues on the board that something needsto be done in the wake of the second disastrous wave of wildfires in just fouryears.
“These fires are not over,” he said. “We’re going to see themagain.”
A letter Cafagna wrote Nov. 15 prompted Friday’s board discussion.
He wrote, “Obviously, a balance must be struck. But I believe that we needto engage the federal and state agencies in a dialogue about how we might modifythe requirements to enhance fire protection in San Diego County.”
Several elected officials on the panel agreed that some sort of regionalvegetation thinning program should be pursued in a bid to limit the breadth ofthe next firestorm. They referred to the suggestion of some scientists thatregular thinning and controlled burning could produce a patchwork of older andyounger chaparral, making it less likely that another conflagration would spreadall the way from the desert to the coast.
At the same time, said board member Crystal Crawford, a Del Mar councilwoman,the region must balance any program against impacts on the environment.
A county report recently found that half of lands already in or targeted forwildlife reserves burned in October. And Crawford said that as a result, theblazes could have compromised the region’s efforts to preserve its diverse butfragile inventory of endangered species.
The October fires torched 368,316 acres and destroyed 1,751 homes and businessesin San Diego County, according to county reports. The biggest of them, the198,000-acre Witch Creek fire, was the fourth-largest in California history.
Both this year and in 2003, the fires were stoked by fierce Santa Ana Windsblowing offshore.
Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife in Carlsbad, said by telephonelater Friday that federal officials would welcome an invitation to meet with theassociation’s regional planning committee. The association is governed by a21-member board that represents the region’s 18 cities and county government.
“This is an important topic and one that is deserving of focused, seriousdiscussions,” Hendron said. “But on the flip side, brush clearing doesnot in and of itself make everyone safe from wind-driven wildfires. In theseSanta Ana winds, embers can travel half a mile or more. … It’s not a panacea.”
During the meeting, Cafagna acknowledged clearing is not a cure-all.
“Obviously, there’s not a heck of a lot you can do in an 80 mph firestorm,”he said.
But Cafagna said it might help if homeowners were permitted to carve widervegetation buffers around their houses.
And board member Bill Horn, a county supervisor, said it also might help iffederal officials regularly thinned vegetation on national forest lands.
“We need to be able to clear the underbrush … so that we can slow thesefires down enough so that we can control them,” Horn said. “Otherwise,we’re going to repeat this every four years in San Diego County.”
In shining the spotlight on the issue, Cafagna highlighted his city’s efforts tocut down brush around homes.
He said federal and state agencies limit clearing in his city to no more than 2acres for any single-family home lot, although on a couple occasions 4 acreswere allowed.
“We would like to see more flexibility in this area,” Cafagna said.
Hendron said she couldn’t address the specific circumstances in Poway. But shesaid that for a decade, Fish and Wildlife Service has had an agreement withlocal governments that allows homeowners throughout the county to clear aminimum of 100 feet around their homes.
And in many cases, she said, her agency has allowed a wider swath of vegetationto be cut.
“There is flexibility that already exists — and has for years,” shesaid.
Hendron added that the purpose is defeated if brush is replaced with certainornamental plants prone to burning.
“Eucalyptus trees contain a lot of oil. They burn explosively,” shesaid. “And palm trees next to homes? Not a good idea.”