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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 Escondido, Nov 14, 2018.
Alison St John
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
Wildfire Fatalities Spark Fears About Recent Land Use Decisions In San Diego GUEST: 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.”

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

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

This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Jade Hindmon. The death toll in the California wildfires this year has fanned the flames of fear about new housing developments being approved in San Diego's unincorporated areas in what's called the urban rural interface. K PBS North County Reporter Alison St. John's says San Diego badly needs more housing which is why county supervisors plan to approve 10000 new homes this year. On the outskirts of town home here in the hills west of Escondido lies homini Grove just one of the places where county supervisors recently approved hundreds of new homes in what's known as the urban rural interface. Rick Hulsey of the chaparral Institute says this is where the kolkhoz fire burned four years ago. And if you look at the bowl shaped area behind me it's a perfect firetrap and the development that they want to put in here as one exit which is right over there Holsey says the semirural developments. The county has recently approved put thousands of people in danger. You cannot put thousands of people on the roads and expect them to survive and that's what happened in paradise. They had a plan where they were going to do. Groups of people evacuate. You can't do that. I mean it happens in a matter of moments. So you've got gridlock on these roads where people are basically dying in their cars because of the heat. Evacuations in San Diego County a coordinated between the sheriff's department and Cal Fire Cal Fires. John Heggie stands by the tailgate of his fire truck. Paper maps in town. So if evacuation were to occur. We have a set of maps. Which are all inside here that we're able to pull out for specific communities and go ahead and use these magnets to go ahead and set the maps up in then we work with the law enforcement cooperators to build identify areas that would be either an evacuation order or an evacuation warning. And what we'll be able to do is then be able to give that information to the county and therefore the thing to put it out on the alert system get a reverse 911 system. Jim McKim has lived in harmony Grove for 33 years and he's skeptical. Just yesterday we saw from power outage in the St. Louis area. Traffic was backed up for about two miles going into there just because the stoplights weren't working. So yeah smoke and fire and panic to that and horse trailers and just be a mess. McKim has evacuated his home three times. The last time for the Cocos fire in 2014 I was standing on a road watching the fire across the hill. The weather changed just like we are today that the wind died down. There were a breeze came up and the fire went from the hillside burned out the hermit Negro Spiritual Association and swept over into here all in a matter of minutes and there was no way they can notify or plan for that. Cal Fires Hagy has a plan B with the intensity and the speed of which the fires are burning. We have to have more than one plan. Some of those plans may be a shelter in place. It's not our first choice our first choice we get people to a safe place but maybe that will be a second choice of our first option of clothes sheltering in place is an option that needs planning and training says recalls. He says there are communities that are better prepared for it than others. Housing says 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. But sheltering in place is a terrifying option considering the intensity of the wildfires happening now. Cal Fires Heggie says 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 for the sheriffs were from the county. If they feel like they're in harm's way we want them to evacuate on the rug Hulsey says more can 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 border and criminal neglect to put people on risks like that when they don't consider their future accessor. Planning is supposed to be supposed to be about looking forward not backward. And here's the problem. We've got this developed paradigm based on the last hundred years. We just can't do it anymore because the climate change and it's putting people at risk. This year San Diego supervisors have approved thousands of homes in the hills north of San Marcos and an Otai ranch to the south near the border. But the county recently postponed a decision on other developments like lilac Hills in North County till next year. Here's the bottom line. We're in a different environmental climate now. We can't keep thinking the way we used to think. Joining us now with more is Allison St. John Kaye PBS is North County Reporter. Alison thanks for joining us. Glad to be with you. All right. How is the location of the campfire similar to the location of the Harmony Grove San Marcos and Otai ranch developments recently approved by county supervisors. Well it is different because the campfire was in forested areas whereas down here we've got chaparral however you know Hulsey says that chaparral is just as dangerous because most of these fires don't start because of blazing trees or blazing chaparral they start because of flying embers that then get into the homes and then they heat up and then they combust. And that is very similar to what happens with the hot chaparral fast moving fire down here. Why are developers proposing projects in these high wildfire risk areas. Well because they're open space and so they have a chance to build these big master planned communities with hundreds if not thousands of homes instead of just a couple of homes in these smaller spaces that you find in most urban areas. So for them it makes profits much higher and it's much more attractive for the developers to propose. And are these master planned communities the only developments being proposed for county supervisors to consider. Well there are spaces in the general plan which are much smaller and developers are not going for those quite as fast. But there are also some fairly large spaces in for example Valley Center that the general plan did say you can build hundreds of homes here. And the developers are going for those the ones that are really the problem are on the outskirts where really they're asking for amendments to the general plan. So then when these developments were being considered by the Board of Supervisors wildfire risk was the primary concern of nearby residents. Do you think the experience of the camp fire could impact these developments in any way. Well it's interesting because the county has just decided to postpone this happened before the campfire though to postpone the decision on the third of their batch of developments that they were approving this year. So there's a couple of thousand homes in North County Lalich hills that's been postponed until next year. But the reason they postponed them was not because of the wildfires but for legal challenges which are saying the county had not developed mitigation for global warming impacts of these developments in the county. However fire is a huge concern and when they were talking about the camp Harmony Grove Village 5 Cal Fire Chief Tony Meachem did say you know shelter in place is a possibility and the supervisors questioned him extensively and he reassure them that he thought it would be fine. But I feel like with this new information about what happened in the camp fire that needs to be examined further. Right. I mean how about that sheltering in place possibility. I mean how safe would that be. It requires a huge amount of planning. And Rick Holsey took us to the Eureka village up there and Escondido here's here's what he had to say about why it's a more fire safe community essentially of two exits here and all the homes are fire safe you got embers this advance and all the roofs and develop right next door has under Yves Mr's which will suppress ember ignition and then importantly you've got this park right in the center of this development. So when you've got a fire coming off of these hills this is where they should come because this is a fire safe park in that sense it's really a shelter in place community where hopefully the residents are informed. Well that is the question I think Jane that other residents trained and informed because it's not just about design. It's about people's reaction when a fire comes they really need to be trained and prepared. And that is not something that I think is generally thought about in these new developments. All right it's certainly going to take an investment of time to do all that. And Allison do you think the campfire may lead developers to incorporate some of those shelter in place options to the developments that the Board of Supervisors approved. I think it very well might Jane. And the thing is there are some relatively low cost things that developers can do such as these fire safe vents which are different which do not allow the embers to get into the house and explode them from the inside. However most of the developments really would resist. I think some of the other fire safe elements such as big open spaces in the middle of the development they would have to sacrifice a number of homes in order to create that. And so you know when it's something that affects profits I think you need more pressure on the developers because they're not going to do it voluntarily. The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to county supervisors about the wildfire risk of the newly approved developments what did that letter say. Well it did a survey of the number of homes that were being approved by the supervisors. Probably more between 10 and 15000 new homes and they figured that all of these homes are in areas where there's chaparral sage scrub which is naturally prone to wildfire. And their analysis suggested that up to 40000 more people could be being put at risk as a result of the supervisor's approval of these developments. I've been speaking with Alison St. John's she is KPBS is North County Reporter Alison thank you. Thank you Jade.