City, county bolster efforts to clear fire hazards

City, county bolster efforts to clear fire hazards

26 October 2008

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USA — Suzi Euell was thrilled to hear the whine of chain saws behind her home on the edge of Clairemont’s Tecolote Canyon last week.

In Rancho Peñasquitos, Don Bruns anxiously waits for the day he’ll hear the same sound in the canyon behind his house.

Euell, Bruns and other canyon dwellers worry that when temperatures edge up and Santa Ana winds stir, the brush near their homes will ignite with the same devastating fury of the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.

San Diego and county leaders hope to calm those fears.

City officials say they are hustling to make up for years of neglect, not only in Clairemont and Rancho Peñasquitos but citywide, by trimming and inspecting thousands of overgrown acres that have become a fire threat to neighborhoods.

The city has more money and staffs than at any time this decade dedicated to tackling the fire hazard that has developed in canyons, gullies, parks and vacant lots.

“We’re getting caught up as fast as we can,” said Chris Zirkle, deputy director of the city’s Park and Recreation Open Space Division.

County officials say they have $1 million for thinning projects on 1,200 acres in unincorporated areas. The county’s budget and scope of work have remained constant and on schedule for the past five years, officials said.

‘A sense of relief’

Workers tromping through Tecolote Canyon were a welcome sight for Euell, a new homeowner who had become uneasy about the brush-choked canyon behind her Mount Everest Boulevard house.

“It’s such a sense of relief to see what’s happening, especially with the fire season on the way,” she said, referring to the truckloads of brush being hauled from the canyon.

But Bruns remains anxious. Small fires have erupted in the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve three times in the past year, and Bruns said it has been years since the canyon’s tangle has been thinned.

The canyon is on a city work list and money has been earmarked for the job, but it may be as long as a year and a half before crews get to the canyon, a timeline Bruns finds less than reassuring.

“I’m a little surprised that with those fires, the canyon isn’t considered a high risk,” he said. “I hope nothing happens before the city gets here.”

The task of managing brush is shared by the city Park and Recreation Department, which is responsible for city-owned land, and the Fire-Rescue Department, which makes sure that landowners abide by safety codes.

Officials from both departments say they have been assured by Mayor Jerry Sanders that brush management is a city priority and that their budgets will not be cut, though other budgets are being trimmed as the city faces a $43 million deficit.

San Diego has budgeted $3.1 million to thin 590 acres this fiscal year, with two-thirds coming from the city’s general fund and the remainder from federal grants. The budget is expected to be the same next year, with city and federal money paying for the thinning of another 590 acres.

Those numbers are a drastic change from two years ago, when the city limped by on a brush budget of $391,000 that allowed for work on just 70 acres.

To tend to the 590 acres this year, the city is working off a priority list developed by the fire department based on factors such as density of vegetation, severity of the canyon slopes and number of nearby fire hydrants.

The top five sites along with Tecolote Canyon are Switzer Canyon in North Park, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta and Maple Canyon near Bankers Hill. The largest project, 177 acres, is in Scripps Ranch. The smallest is Maple Canyon’s 10 acres.

The work, performed by city crews and contract workers, meets the same standards applied to private property owners, who are required by law to create 100 feet of “defensible space” around their homes. The natural growth is thinned by about half, and in a nod to preservation, nothing is cut beyond the 100-foot barrier.

Although the city is still a year or more away from catching up on the colossal task of thinning the 1,180 or so acres, park officials say they are confident the work is on schedule.

The same assurance comes from the city’s fire department now that it has increased the number of staff dedicated to finding fire hazards on private property.

Until the last year, the department had two inspectors who could only scramble from one complaint to another. It now has four inspectors and soon will add three more, allowing them to roam the city looking for fire hazards.

The goal is that by July 2010, all 43,000 private parcels where brush, weeds and debris could become kindling will have been looked over by a code compliance officer and will continue to be inspected every two years.

Staying on top of it

San Diego County officials find themselves doing far less scrambling to deal with brush management in unincorporated areas. The county has consistently worked with a $1 million budget for brush-thinning.

Brian Albright, assistant director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, has the task of planning how to manage brush in the 40,000-acre park system next year.

“It’s a big project, as you can imagine,” he said. “But it’s one we know we have to stay on top of.”

The county tries to tackle 1,200 acres a year, with crews whacking away with hand tools and chain saws, or using grazing goats or herbicides that control growth of unwanted plants.

Plans are in the works for prescribed burns, Albright said.

The county is preparing a vegetation master plan, a strategy that covers everything from lobbying for legislative changes to developing rules covering prescribed burns to addressing state environmental issues.

Part of the plan is to determine the most effective ways to tackle brush control, Albright said. The county has established backcountry study areas to evaluate varying brush management methods.

The county is counting on $4 million in federal funding to continue its program of removing dead and dying trees – brittle vegetation that ignites easily and burns with fury.

From 2005 to 2007, the county used $7.6 million in federal money to cut down 413,668 dead tress on 18,413 acres.

Ken Miller, fire services coordinator for the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use, called such work crucial in lessening the fire danger.

The 2007 wildfires prompted authorities to step up fire inspections of private property in the unincorporated areas. Inspections by Cal Fire throughout the county have almost doubled in the first nine months of this year – 10,435 through Sept. 26, compared with 6,238 for the same period in 2007.

The reason for the increase is obvious, said Pam Elias, chief of the county’s Code Enforcement Division.

“After two huge fires, we have recognized a fire danger, and the state has stepped up inspection to reduce that danger,” Elias said.

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