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Protect Your Home From Wildfire

This fire season is shaping up to be grueling. Drought has turned brush into kindling, and there are surprisingly few city workers to thin that fire-prone vegetation. As Rebecca Tolin reports, the ci

This fire season is shaping up to be grueling. Already there have been wildfires in Julian, Bonsall and Rancho Penasquitos. Drought has turned brush into kindling, and there are surprisingly few city workers to thin that fire-prone vegetation. As Rebecca Tolin reports, the city of San Diego is a microcosm of the fire danger faced around the county.

Jeff Johnson's got the tools, the wounds and -- as with most wars -- a formidable opponent.

But his backyard is the battlefield. And flames, the enemy to be avoided. The Cedar Fire came close to his Tierrasanta home in 2003.

Johnson : It was startling. We knew we have a danger here. I just didn't anticipate it being that severe.

But even that burning memory -- and chiding from his firefighter son-in-law wasn't enough to spur the Johnsons into action.

Mark Castiglione, S.D. Fire-Rescue Fire Prevention Inspector: You received a violation notice regarding brush as I can tell you've been working on. Did you complete the project? 

Johnson: About 90%

Mark Castiglione delivered the violation notice from the city of San Diego, threatening a fine and even jail, for failure to comply. The city requires one hundred feet of defensible space between any building and native brush.

Darlene Johnson : We do have a constant fear of fire always, and also when you get a notice that you will be fined I think that kind of gets your attention as well.

Jeff Johnson : Fear was rampant. When you read on there $1,000 fine then people started doing stuff and we really cleared out the canyon.

To be fair: it wasn't just the Johnsons. Castiglione found overgrown brush on the whole canyon-rimmed block of Viacha Way. All that was stopping these residents from losing their homes, was time.

Castiglione : We have native vegetation. It looks like it hasn't burned in at least 50 years. We have homes built on canyon rims. Fire does travel faster on rims, so this would be considered a high risk area.

Here's a satellite look at the area. The city calls it an urban-open space interface. It's where structures meet native vegetation, which means wildfire is always a threat. So consider the city has some 900 miles of canyon rims to manage. Guess how many fire prevention inspectors, like Mark Castiglione, do the job?

Sam Oates , S.D. Fire-Rescue Fire Marshall: We've got over 900 lineal miles of canyon rim in the city of San Diego, and presently I have two inspectors that are able to inspect that.

Two inspectors. Fire Marshal Sam Oates says that's not enough. Mainly, they have time to respond to complaints, neighbors with a blocked view kind of thing, but not serious fire prevention. Oates used to have 11 fire inspectors in 1986, after the Normal Heights fire. But the numbers shrank with tight budgets.

By 1990, there were six fire inspectors. They were all cut in 1991. And for the past 10 years, there have been two inspectors funded by the city's general fund. Oates always asks for more.

Oates : I'd like 11. Give me more. I mean, to do a comprehensive -- we're talking about brush. So when you clear brush this year -- in two years it will be back and you're going to need to do it. This needs to be sustained.

Jerry Sanders , San Diego Mayor: Right now what we're doing is balancing a lot of priorities in the city. And we have to balance between police officers and firefighters and brush management and parks and libraries. We think we got a program that works.

And so it seems fire prevention has another foe: the beleaguered city budget. Keep in mind, so far we've been talking about private property, and where it meets public land. But there's another matter: all the city-owned land, all 24,000 acres of open space. But even if homeowners clear their lots, they still live next to city-owned land.

The city, according to its own code, is supposed to clear about 590 acres of brush every year. But this year there's only enough funding for about 80 acres, and that leaves a lot of dry, fire-prone brush.

William Johnson , California Conservation Corps: I've been doing this for 10 years now and this is some of the driest brush I've ever seen.

William Johnson calls it a tinder box, ready to burn. His crew, the California Conservation Corps, is clearing a 100-foot fire break on this city land in Rancho Penasquitos.

Thinning dense chaparral is grueling. It will take a whole month for this 12-person crew to cover a mere 10 acres. But Johnson says it’s work that vital for the safety of homeowners.

William Johnson : It's extremely important because as everyone knows from the Cedar fires and Paradise fires, brush reduction around the houses is most important. That's one of the reasons why we had such devastation that we had before.

And yet, city funding for brush abatement hasn't increased since the 2003 fire storms. This work falls under the Parks and Recreation department. But like San Diego Fire-Rescue it's woefully under funded.

Remember those 590 acres that need thinning each year? Right now three employees and this outsourced crew can complete 80 acres this year. It would take an extra 30 employees for the city to thin all the brush, according to its own requirements. That would cost an extra $4.2 million dollars, which the mayor says isn't there.

So there's just no more in the city budget? 

Sanders : You know the city has been in some problems for quite some time and we're trying to make ends meet by using voluntary compliance, by using every way we can get to do it, including applying for grants, which is the only way we can get this done.

The city is applying for federal grant dollars to deal with the overgrown brush, but so far, there's no guarantee.

Johnson : It's always a struggle. All the agencies that use our services, they have a problem getting the money. And I mean we're not the most expensive one in town either. We pay our people minimum wage.

And that takes us back to where we began, homeowner Jeff Johnson.

Johnson : It's pretty strenuous. There are funner things in life than breaking your backbone up the hill.

With little government money, the brush burden is increasingly falling on residents.

Johnson : Should do this throughout the whole year, constantly keep the vegetation back, but like a lot of my neighbors you forget about it.

Until that is, an inspector knocks on your door. Fire Marshall Oates would like an inspector at every door. He'd like to map out the city and target the thickest brush. But given his budget, he can only issue words of warning.

Oates : It's kind of like what is it going to take for people to wake up and take care. That's their property. That's their home. That's their livelihood, and we can only do so much.

Jeff Johnson admits he may forget the firestorm his home escaped, but not the back-breaking work it takes to dodge the next one.