Supervisors accept vegetation management report, Difference between report and plan emphasized

Supervisors accept vegetation management report, Difference between report and plan emphasized

9 April 2009

published by

USA — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to receive the County of San Diego Vegetation Management Report while noting that the March 25 decision to accept the report doesn’t equate to approving a plan itself.

“This is a starting point,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “Collectively we’re going to come up with a better plan as we move forward with this.”

The report discusses fire and vegetation issues for unincorporated San Diego County and provides recommendations for future action.

“It’s a listing of all the things that everybody’s doing,” said Tom Oberbauer, who coordinated the report on behalf of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU).

Some speakers felt that a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report was needed for the report itself. The supervisors’ action also directed county staff to conduct appropriate California Environmental Quality Act review for any new proposed projects which will implement actions identified in the Vegetation Management Plan.

Some of the implementation items may only require a Negative Declaration rather than an Environmental Impact Report. Oberbauer noted that specific elements of the plan would be implemented once county funding and staffing enable such action.

The supervisors and county staff also noted that the vegetation management plan won’t replace other fire mitigation measures but is one portion of a comprehensive program.

“Vegetation management alone does not entirely mitigate losses,” said DPLU director Eric Gibson. “We must address the topic at a systems level.”

The county’s systems approach categorizes solutions into one of six areas: vegetation management, building and fire codes, land use planning, education and outreach, fire suppression, and damage assessment.

“While building codes and clearance are important, they by themselves are not the solution,” Gibson said.

Citizens were concerned that vegetation management would have minimal effect in wind-driven fires, which have caused the most damage, but fuel-driven fires can be slowed down by proper management.

“Wind-driven fires are not the only fires we have experienced in this region,” Gibson said.

The components of the vegetation management report include an overview, strategic fuel treatment types, priority areas, and prior and future fuel treatments.

A technical committee included members from County of San Diego staff, the Planning Commission, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Department of Fish and Game, California State Parks, the University of California Cooperative Extension, US Fish and Wildlife, the US Geological Survey, the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, the California Chaparral Institute, and the Conservation Biology Institute.

Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League expressed some concerns about the report but also expressed appreciation for the collaboration.

“The result is guidance that can lead to action supported by the scientific, firefighting, and environmental communities,” he said.

“Now we have the start of a group of people working together,” said Dr. Tom Scott of the University of California Cooperative Extension.

“This is not a single-faceted operation or plan,” said Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District fire chief Scott Walker, who represented the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

“Vegetation management is another tool in the toolbox to help combat destructive wildfires,” said Bill Paskle of the Alpine Fire Protection District. “Vegetation management helps by slowing the approach of the fire.”

Not only does vegetation management provide fuel breaks to slow fires, but such breaks allow firefighters a chance to combat fires.

Paskle noted the success of the Palomar Mountain fuel breaks during the Poomacha Fire. “The removal of dead trees enabled firefighters to set up a line,” he said.

“It’s about reasonable balance. Fuel reduction activities are essential,” said Cal Fire unit chief Howard Windsor. “From the Cal Fire perspective the plan is supported.”

Deer Springs Fire Safe Council founder Tom Francl lives in Hidden Meadows, which is in the 124,930-acre San Luis Rey West area. “I kind of think we’re the highest risk area,” he said.

“This report utilizes various options to prevent wildfires in our area and recommends multiple approaches,” Francl said. “We need the kind of help that the report provides.”

As the president of the Greater Alpine Fire Safe Council, Neville Connell is familiar with recent Alpine-area fires and has seen the effects of vegetation management, although involuntarily. “The Viejas Fire acted as a fuel break to the progress of the Cedar Fire,” he said.

“This can become the backbone of your strategic vegetation management program,” said Peter St. Clair of the California Native Plant Society. “This report calls for a systemic approach to save lives and property.”

St. Clair noted, however, that money spent on vegetation management might be better spent on educational outreach programs. “You’re doing a good job on the new homes. It’s the existing homes that burn,” he said.

Cal Fire region staff chief of resource management Thom Porter noted that his agency is responsible for watershed protection as well as fire suppression but that saving lives and property is a key Cal Fire mission.

“This report clearly establishes the means to do that,” he said. “I am very comfortable with this plan.”

Attorney Rory Wicks, who represented the California Chaparral Institute, questioned whether the report met the California Environmental Quality Act requirement of compliance at the time of contemplation, design, and planning.

“CEQA requires that projects not be chopped up into little parts, that it not be piecemeal or segmented,” he said. “There is one project here, to clear 30,000 to 40,000 acres of vegetation.”

Diane Conklin of Ramona represented the Mussey Grade Alliance. The Mussey Grade area was threatened – with some homes actually impacted – during the October 2003 Cedar Fire.

“We know that wind is the key to this issue,” Conklin said. “Wind drives embers up to a quarter-mile.”

Conklin told the supervisors that homes too close to wildland are a significant cause of destruction. “The home itself is the issue. That’s the ignition part,” she said.

“We think it’s a step, but it should be just a report, not a plan,” said Bill Cooper of the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum.

“It’s a lot better than all the other drafts,” said California Chaparral Institute founder Richard Halsey. “It’s still inadequate.”

Halsey noted the need to focus on wildland-urban interface rather than just on wildland.

“You might end up wasting a lot of taxpayer money,” he said. “You might put vegetation treatments where they’re not needed.”

The California Native Plant Society supports the final report but seeks refinements.

“In general we feel that the plan is basically the right direction. However, I do have some concerns with the report,” said David Flietner, the San Diego Chapter president of the California Native Plant Society.

“There are some very serious flaws,” said Wayne Tyson, who after the Laguna Fire in 1970 was the City of San Diego staff member who conducted research on prevention of future disasters.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Supervisor Bill Horn said of the report. “The report is not specific on any projects, but it I think it lays out an operational plan.”

Horn cautioned that the vegetation management program would require significant funding. “It’s a whole lot cheaper than burying people and replacing homes,” he said.

“As county supervisors we are not just about wildlands and open space,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “We are also charged with public protection.”

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