How Will Wildfire Danger Affect New Homes In North County Backcountry?
Our top story on mid edition. Firefighters are now battling the largest wildfire in California's history. In the Mendocino complex fire in northern California one of 17 wildfires burning throughout the state. So it's no surprise that one of the biggest concerns voiced at a recent County Board of Supervisors meeting on new home development in unincorporated areas was about the threat of wildfire and there was a change in official responses to that concern that we haven't heard before. The concept that some residents in new housing developments should shelter in place during a wildfire. That is a major shift from previous pronouncements that people need to evacuate and that sheltering in place is life threatening. And what's even more surprising is that the shelter in place advice was given by Cal Fire Chief Tony Meacham chief Meachem joins me now. Chief welcome to the program. Hey good morning. Would you like to clarify the statements you made at that board of supervisors meeting last month. Is it really the policy of Cal Fire that some residents threatened by wildfire are safer sheltering in place. Yeah I think it is and I do want to clarify because you know it's very hard to explain a very dynamic situation like a wildland fire in that in a single action. And so when when we respond to any incident but in this case a wildland fire we're going to conduct an assessment of the hazards and the risks to the public and specifically when we talk about the general public we really have five options at our disposal. And the first is we can issue immediately in the evacuation order that we want people to leave. Now the second option we have is we can issue the evacuation warning which basically means hey we feel that that you may be threatened within about two hours and you need to start packing and ready to go. And then we have three other options. One is shelter in place. We can go in and actively rescue people if the fire is in backyards and we need to actually go in and rescue people or the fifth phosphine option is what we refer to as a community refuge area where we will temporary temporarily redirect the public to an area that we feel is safe. You know historically when we've responded to wildland fires we're dealing with older communities maybe rural you know rural areas homes on five and 10 acres and are absolute instructions are we are going to evacuate also under the Santa Ana type winds for example the Lilach fire last December when that fire started on Interstate 15 we evacuated all the way to Oceanside because we knew in the next couple of hours that that fire would be impacting those communities where we use shelter in place is primarily in newer communities or communities that have adequate defensible space around the community and we're in the initial stages of the fire. You know for Jeff maybe within the first hour or two we make that decision at that moment. It is safer to leave people inside buildings that we feel will withstand fire as opposed to putting them on the roadway. Having said that if we have three or four hours notice that a fire is going to hit a community or a couple hours notice we're absolutely going to continue with our practice of evacuating everybody from the fire. But we've always had this option of shelter in place but I think it is becoming more pronounced now specific to the the two developments. Yes I feel that the option of shelter in place is a very good option. Those developments are going to have very large expansive fuel breaks and projects around the community which we as the fire service collectively feel is going to be very easy to defend as opposed to putting those people on the roadways. Now climate scientists and firefighters tell us that wildfires are not only burning bigger areas but they are burning hotter as well. Are you confident that the kinds of construction and interior protection and the other protections that you just explained will make residents safe inside their houses or in their developments. Every fire is different and the location of homes are different. And yes we are seeing fires burn a lot hotter but heat rises so a lot of it is you know what is the the slope you know in other words are these homes sitting right at the top of a very very steep drainage where where all that heat rises and is going to be more of an impact to the structure than homes or a community that is built on you know Flader type ground where they're not going to they're not going to impact or that that heat wave if you will is not going to act the structures. So to say that it is always going to be one way or another certainly under you know Santa Ana winds in those things can influence it. The other thing I spoke about also was doing surgical evacuations if you if you look at a community in a more densely populated community like Harmony Grove south harmony grow over the valley Onno project. We would more than likely evacuate immediately evacuate the outer ring of the community but not immediately evacuate the inner ring of the communities. If you think about we have 300 homes and we issued that evacuation order for 300 homes to leave right now. The people that are most Parel are the people that are on the perimeter of that project and by evacuating everybody at once. Potentially you know cause traffic and roadway issues we may want to ask the people in the center of the community to stay in their homes allow the sheriff's department to go evacuate the people that are at greatest risk. Then we will re-evaluate the threat to bring them back in. Our overall reaction is our overall goal is we are going to evacuate anybody that we believe in harm's way. But there is certain circumstances where a fire is impacting for example our escape route out and it's much safer to leave those people where they're at. Now back at the 2007 Witch Fire about 500000 people in San Diego County were evacuated. Looking back on that do you think that it was it that was successful from your point of view should we have done anything differently. No I think it was. I think it was successful and I think that we're going to continue to do that when you have 60 to 70 mile an hour winds are blowing and not wide of a fire front moving into that populated of an area. You know the the prudent thing for public safety officials to do is to issue that wide evacuation order before I let you go Chief Meecham. I do want to ask you just a little bit about these huge fires that are burning in northern California the Mendocino complex fire the car fire. Is there any good news to report on them. Is there any. Are firefighters getting a handle on them is the weather improving in any way. No. You know the updates we're getting is that the weather's not improving. You know we have another significant fire here in Southern California the holy fire. I believe we're at the point of almost turning the corner on the fires in northern California. The Ranch fire specifically though is burning up onto the Mendocino forest and some very difficult terrain. And what is worrisome is that as soon as we get a handle on these fires you know what's next. We're literally have new fires every day so we don't see any break in sight. OK then thank you for that. I've been speaking with Cal Fire Chief Tony Meecham thanks for speaking with us. OK thank you for having me on this morning.
Times have changed, Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham said.
During the 2007 Witch Fire in North County, a half-million San Diegans were evacuated. The addition of new housing developments in Harmony Grove could make things even worse, but Mecham doesn't think so.
He has expressed confidence that the area could be evacuated, even with just one road, Country Club Road, in and out, or that residents in new developments would be able to shelter in place.
Mecham joins KPBS Midday Edition to talk about wildfires and how improvements in the way new housing developments are built will allow sheltering in place to become more common.