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Wildfire Fatalities Spark Fears About Recent Land Use Decisions In San Diego

The housing development Harmony Grove is nestled at the base of hills near Es...

Photo by Alison St John

Above: The housing development Harmony Grove is nestled at the base of hills near Escondido, Nov 14, 2018.

Wildfire Fatalities Spark Fears About Recent Land Use Decisions In San Diego


Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS

The death toll in the California wildfires this year has fanned the flame of fears about new housing developments being approved in San Diego’s unincorporated areas.

San Diego needs more housing, which is why the County Board of Supervisors planned to approve 10,000 new homes this year, in developments on the outskirts of town.

Out in the hills west of Escondido lies Harmony Grove, one of the places where the board recently approved hundreds of new homes.

Standing on a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley, Rick Halsey of the Chaparral Institute said this is where the Cocos fire burned four years ago.

“If you look at the bowl-shaped area behind me, it’s a perfect fire trap,” Halsey said. "And the development they want to put in here has one exit, which is right over there.”

Halsey pointed north to where the new development of Harmony Grove Village is being built.

Many of the semi-rural developments the county has recently approved potentially put thousands of people in danger, Halsey said, because there simply would not be time to evacuate with the new, faster burning wildfires.

The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors last week, with an analysis of the developments’ cumulative impact on wildfire risk.

"Together, the developments would put more than 40,000 potential residents at risk," the analysis concluded.

“You cannot put thousands of people on the roads and expect them to survive, and that’s what happened in Paradise,” Halsey said. “They had a plan where they were going to have groups of people evacuating. You can’t do that. It happens in a matter of moments — so you’ve got gridlock on the roads where people are basically dying in their cars because of the heat.”

Evacuation planning

Evacuations in San Diego County are coordinated between the Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire. Standing beside his firetruck, Cal Fire’s Jon Heggie pulled maps out of a satchel and spread one out on the tailgate.

“If an evacuation was to occur,” he explained, “we have a set of maps that we pull out here for specific communities, and we go ahead and use these magnets to set them up. Then we work with law enforcement to identify areas that would be either an evacuation order or an evacuation warning. What we would do is then give that info to the county, and they’d put that out on the alert system of the Reverse 9-1-1 system.”

“It’s a well-orchestrated dance, so to speak,” he said, “between us and our law enforcement partners to be able to do these evacuations in a timely manner.”

Jim McKim has lived in Harmony Grove for 33 years, and he’s skeptical. Standing on a two-lane road near his home, he waved toward Harmony Grove Road that leads through the hills to San Elijo.

“Just yesterday, we saw, from a power outage in the San Elijo area, traffic was backed up for about two miles just because the stop lights weren’t working,” he said.

McKim has been forced to evacuate his home three times because of wildfires, the last time for the Cocos fire in 2014.

“I was standing on our road watching the fire cross the hill," McKim said. “The weather changed, the wind died down, the onshore breeze came up, and the fire went from that hillside, burned out the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association and swept over into here in a matter of minutes — and there’s no way they can notify or plan for that.”

Photo credit: Jim McKim

Smoke and flames creep down a hillside behind Harmony Grove, in May 2014.

McKim has a photograph of the flames and smoke descending the hill toward the empty housing pads where hundreds of new houses now stand, a development built since the Cocos fire. Supervisors recently approved 700 more homes nearby.

Cal Fire’s Heggie said officials do have good evacuation plans in place.

“But,” he said, “with the intensity and the speed with which these fires are burning, we have to have more than one plan, and some of those plans may be shelter-in-place. It’s not our first choice, our first choice would get people to a safe place, but maybe that will be a second choice if our first option is closed.”

Plan B: Shelter-in-place

Sheltering in place is an option that needs significant planning and training, said Halsey. There are communities that are better prepared for it that than others. He took us to a development called Eureka Springs, a community built in the last decade in north Escondido.

Halsey pointed to the chaparral-covered hills surrounding the homes but said the development has key features that could protect from wildfire. For example, all the homes have ember resistant vents on the roof.

“People have this notion of this wall of flame coming and hammering these homes and they’re exploding, but 99 percent of the homes don’t ignite that way,” Halsey said. “What happens is little embers get into the attic and they basically burn from the inside out.”

Halsey said if developers installed external sprinklers for the houses, and sacrificed a few homes to create empty space within a community, it might be viable to shelter in place. He walked through the play area in the middle of a large grassy open space at the center of Eureka Springs.

“Importantly, you’ve got this park right in the middle of the development,” he said. “This is where they should come, this would be a great place to come for safety.”

But sheltering in place is a terrifying option considering the intensity of the wildfires happening now.

Heggie said when winds are blowing 50 or 60 miles an hour, firefighters stand little chance of controlling the blaze, and people need to take responsibility for their own safety.

“When the fires are burning rapidly, we don’t need people to wait for a message from the fire department or the sheriff or the county,” Heggie said. “If people feel they are in harm’s way, we want them to evacuate on their own.”

Land use decisions

Halsey said more could be done to make communities on the rural/urban interface safer, but too many decisions are being made for short-term gain at the cost of long-term risk.

“It’s bordering on criminal neglect to put people in risks like that when they don’t consider the future because that’s what planning is supposed to be about — looking forward and not backward,” Halsey said. “And here’s the problem, we’ve got this development paradigm based on the last 100 years. We just can’t do it anymore, because the climate has changed and it’s putting people at risk.”

This year the County's Board of Supervisors have approved thousands of homes in Newland Sierra in the hills north of San Marcos and in Otay Ranch to the south near the border. But the county recently postponed a decision on other developments, like Lilac Hills in North County, until next year.

“Here’s the bottom line,” said Halsey. “We’re in a different environmental climate now, we can’t keep thinking the way we used to think.”

Reported by Kris Arciaga

The death toll in the California wildfires this year has fanned the flame of fears about new housing developments being approved in San Diego’s unincorporated areas.



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