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KPBS Midday Edition

Preventing Wildfire In San Diego County

Preventing Wildfire In San Diego County
Preventing Wildfire In San Diego County
GUESTThom Porter, Unit Chief, San Diego CalFire

ALLISON ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition. Today is Thursday, August 29th. I'm Allison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh and here are some of the stories we're covering the San Diego newsroom today. The union that represents San Diego firefighters is endorsing Nathan Fletcher for San Diego Mayor. The firefighters union backed Mayor Filner in last year's election. San Diego fast food workers are taking part in a national strike calling for higher wages. They're pushing for $15 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and has not been raised since 2009. And environmental business and civic leaders gathered outside Sea World this morning to declare their support for banning plastic bags in San Diego and statewide. Our top story on Midday Edition today, with the rim fire now burning in Yosemite national Park is the largest in the state's history. As we head into the hottest driest months of the year in San Diego we will talk about fire preparedness here and Cal fires plan to reduce the frequency and intensity of wildfires around the state. State fire officials are proposing a 30 year vegetation treatment plan which includes printing, clearing and using herbicides to eliminate old growth on tens of millions of acres in California. But there's the criticism of the plan especially here in southern California. Like to welcome my guest is Tom Porter staff chief of Cal Fire San Diego and chief thank you so much for joining us. TOM PORTER: It's great to be here. ALLISON ST. JOHN: We should mention that we actually I think you and some of the critics of this plan on the air a couple of weeks back at you were unable to attend but we do have some clips for Rick Halsey who is one of the chief critics says so we get a little bit of back and forth here on the program. First of all let's start with the rim fire tell us what the latest is TOM PORTER: Well the rim fire is 190 to almost 193,000 probably well beyond that today because it's actively burning many locations that are fair and it will take a lot of time to put those areas out. It's likely that this fire will be one of the top five if one of the top two or three fire server two be recorded in California history I restricted account I think we're at the neighborhood of hundred 2150 San Diego firefighters on the fire plus anotherifornia history and it's proving to be a be a very difficult one with the lack of rain in the mountains of the CRS. And then a fuel speak. Try it's just. Furcal to control. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Do we have a lot of firefighters up there right now? TOM PORTER: 40 or 50 that are covering other areas of the state on other fires or ready to go to those fires. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Any predictions at all of how long we might have to fight this before we get a handle on it? TOM PORTER: The prediction for containment of the rim fire is September 20. That is a long way off. It could change quickly with rain, it could extend with bad, dry weather. ALLISON ST. JOHN: So our fire here in 2003 the Cedar fire is still on record as the largest California wildfire, right? So what are we doing in San Diego to prepare and prevent the fire from that happening again in our neck of the woods? TOM PORTER: It's very interesting question. We, after 2003 Cal fire the forest service and the agencies that start working wildfire started working closely with the county and also the county has taken it upon itself to look at land-use planning code development and those kinds of things that the county has jurisdiction over. Then even further have (inaudible) 2007 developed a systematic approach which starts with the instructor and course has been developed to Arden structures and provide better water supply if there's a structure fire, those kinds of things and then we have a defensible space portion of that so we look at the space that is within 100 feet of that structure and what the landowners can do to reduce the fuel there. The third part of the system is land-use planning. For developments that are coming, subdivisions that are online for the future, all plans have to meet a fire-safe kind of planning element and that is geared toward reducing the impact of fire as it enters into a community. So, those things are things that the County and fire agencies are working very closely on. The one that is further out the next is the landscape level treatments. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Is that the vegetation management we were talking about? TOM PORTER: Exactly. So the vegetation management programmatic EIR or the Board of forestry ALLISON ST. JOHN: Which is for statewide management? TOM PORTER: Statewide. It is geared toward the final goal that we need to have the full systematic approach. It's only looking at the landscape level. These other elements are codified in codes, land-use planning and defensible space. ALLISON ST. JOHN: It's interesting because some of the critics are saying we should start with. Structures and not with the bigger plan which I want you to describe what it is. It involves millions of acres of California environment, right? TOM PORTER: Back to the first point that thing is we've done that we've done the elements starting with the structure out this is the final element we need to have the assistance of this tool is what I will call it is a programmatic EIR that allows us to look at landscape treatments out in the back country and determine whether they are truly in the firefighter and professionals' minds of some value. If that is determined and we also love to work with the land owners. If the landowner doesn't like to do it and we'd like to do it we still can't do it. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Involves public and private land. TOM PORTER: Public and private but primarily private. The public lands are not federal lands. It is only state or local government owned lands. ALLISON ST. JOHN: 30,000,000 acres is state and local lands. So the plan involves burning, clearing I understand like 52% of this would be done by controlled burns, 18% by clearing, chain sawing, chipping, 10% cleared by hand, 10% using goats or sheep and 9% using herbicides. So you know it would have a huge environmental impact. How much would it cost to implement? TOM PORTER: I don't have the exact numbers. We are working through budget process to determine how much the budget will allow for on an annual basis but it is important to understand that those percentages are the allowable use of the type of treatment in the full 38,000,000 acres and that the 30,000,000 acres of that we can only treat less than 2% of the landmass on a 10 year rolling average. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Over time. TOM PORTER: So it's relatively small number of acres that can actually be treated on an annual basis. Here in San Diego it amounts to around 7 to 10,000 acres. ALLISON ST. JOHN: I understand 2000 letters were admitted to challenge the proposal and let's play a clip from Mike Halsey, he's a biologist and director of the California chaparral Institute we spoke to a couple weeks ago about why he opposes the plan and then you can respond. MIKE HALSEY (RECORDING): Fire officials have been trying to do this for the last century and it has not worked. Every decade more and more money is applied to fire treatment kinds of programs and fire suppression efforts in every decade there are more and more fires and bigger fires. So what we are asking is what do you want to protect? You want to save lives and property and also protect the national resources so what do you need to do to do that? You focus strictly on the asset at risk and science is clearly showing that over the last 10 or 15 years the best place to do that kind of vegetation treatment that they are proposing is right around communities encourage defensible space around homes, but the community golf course right up against the forest instead of in the middle of the community so a lot of things you can do to create a permanent solution. The vegetation treatments by definition require continual maintenance. And that costs and ongoing huge outlay of money. ALLISON ST. JOHN: So basically he is saying that it has not worked and you know, we want to hear what your reaction to that is. TOM PORTER: Yeah, and I already covered the areas of--- ALLISON ST. JOHN: Community focus. TOM PORTER: Community and focus, so I'm not going to address that portion. I will focus on the landscape level treatments. What Rick Halsey is not reflecting there and the science is not reflecting, there are two camps of science, one, let it burn and it will turn into a natural system of small patchwork fires, and the other would be what Mr. Halsey is talking about and Cal fire can't subscribe to one or the other we have to fight fire on behalf of the human element and we have environmental effects that are important to us, but they are further down the list then my human element. So, what gets lost is when firefighters are out on the line and they are fighting fire the fuel treatments, or even old fires that have occurred are very important. When we run fires into that meeting, we herd a fire by working on its flanks to run into an area where the fuel reductions are and if they are not there we don't have that opportunity. As I mentioned we have 7000 to 10,000 acres we can do with this plan. So we will not have those in every area that we would like or need them. ALLISON ST. JOHN: We are speaking with California Fire Chief Tom Porter and I want to go to the point that Rick Halsey made which is that in the sulfur fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, the fire they're burning in the footprint of the fire that had just burned that vegetation relatively recently so his argument is that especially in Southern California this plan may not apply because the kind of vegetation that grows up after you do a clearing may be just as vulnerable to wildfire? TOM PORTER: There were several homes destroyed unfortunately not fire. Rick made those comments without ever having been to the fire. He was making those from a distance. I have not been to the fire, so I don't have my personalized to be able to give me an impression. But I've talked with Chiefs there, and there would have been many more homes destroyed if certain fuel reductions including prescribed burns had been done in the pocket flat area. ALLISON ST. JOHN: The question is who's going to decide if this vegetation plan goes through and we have a cut from Rick talking about his concerns about that. TOM PORTER: I think the next step is I hope the phone call will come to all of us and say would you come up to San Francisco, Sacramento for a weekend we won't pay for your hotel room but we will supply the place to talk and let's hammer out a document that will really work that is the scenario I'm hoping for. What I'm afraid of is what is happening in the past and other efforts not necessarily hellfire but others where they justify the document with some minor changes and move ahead and that scenario that's going to be a failure in terms of our perspective because then we will have to do illegal things and that is just not the way that the productive process is developed I mean it creates animosity and I mean judges do not know, we know how to do it, all of us together so that's what I'm hoping for. ALLISON ST. JOHN: So chief Porter what is the process and would Rick Halsey be at the table? TOM PORTER: Again, Mr. Halsey is threatening some legal action in that statement and he did so about two weeks after the Board of forestry met and to hear some concerns. Mr. Halsey was not there. He sent an individual to read a written statement and many of the scientists were there making statements so that was a chance to have direct input. ALLISON ST. JOHN: So it is the board of Forestry, describe who they are. TOM PORTER: The Board of forestry is the governing body over all the regulations that Cal fire manages our business under. So firefighting and natural resource management. ALLISON ST. JOHN: What is your reaction to his point that wildfires burn differently in Northern California from Southern California? TOM PORTER: First going to go back to the previous question so we did have a public meeting and Halsey, Mr. Halsey was invited to that. He had a representative and he had about a month prior to that a sit down with some of the board with one of the board members and Cal fire professionals and that was another chance for input and so input is being taken seriously ALLISON ST. JOHN: Just for our listeners I think that is an interesting question that perhaps fires do behave differently in Northern California and Southern California. TOM PORTER: Yes we have similar fires both in Northern and Southern California but it depends on the fuel type and weather conditions. So in the rim fire we could have as big a fire in the timber fire but we couldn't have a timber fire in the mountain areas and if you get to the foothills there are many areas similar to what we have in San Diego or Southern California it's important to know also that the we have a more pronounced Santa Ana type of season here only about 1% if we talk about number of fires started are Santa Ana driven fires they are large and damaging on occasion but they are a very small percentage of the actual number of fires and the fuel treatments are very important for the 99% of fires that we have during normal fire days. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Although the Santa Anas I think are what everybody is scared of because remember the fires in 2003 and 2007 what are you doing to prepare for that because we're coming up on the season for winds like that. TOM PORTER: That's an interesting question because what we've done over time as work very closely with SDG&E and San Diego County forest service and other wild fire department partners and we have, thanks to SDG&E a very robust wind sensing system and cameras that are out, there are well over 100 cameras they help us to better understand what's going on with the wind, where it is focusing and where we need to deploy our resources. We've trained our firefighters they're getting a lot of good experience right now and hopefully will get that back plus the ones who staff currently to take care of the firefighters ALLISON ST. JOHN: That's a good point they are training up at the rim fire. Well chief Tom Porter, I'd like to thank you very much. TOM PORTER: Thank you very much. It is great to be here.

The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is proposing a "vegetation treatment" plan to protect California from future wild fires.

The plan proposes the use of prescribed burns, chopping down, weeding and herbicides on tens of millions of acres of state and federal lands across California for the next 30 years.

Follow our latest coverage of wildfires in San Diego.

Cal Fire said the vegetation treatment plan is necessary because of an increasing number of severe wildfires over the last 30 years, and an increasing population in the state with millions living in rural or fire-prone areas.


In the executive summary of the project proposal, the agency points to the influence of climate change on wildfire severity.

It says an increase in drought, predictions of higher temperatures and more grasslands all point to the need for the vegetation treatment plan.

The controlled burn method to reduce the intensity of wildfires has been in operation for years. It has also been the target of criticism, especially in Southern California.

A public hearing was held in Ventura on August 8 to discuss the project after state agencies received thousands of letters against it.

Rick Halsey is a biologist and director of the California Chaparral Institute. He said the plan is a "major threat to nature" in California because one-third of the state lands would be cleared. Halsey said prescribed burns, which make up more than 50 percent of the vegetation treatment plan, don't actually work to prevent wildfire in San Diego County because it's not a one-size-fits-all-ecosystems plan.


Halsey said, in the cooler climate of Northern California, burning vast areas of dense forest could be effective. But he said, Southern California's arid climate and the native landscape renders the same techniques unsuccessful.

He pointed to the recent Silver Fire, which burned 20,000 acres and destroyed 26 homes near Banning, as a challenge to the theory that prescribed burns prevent fires in Southern California.

Halsey said because the Silver Fire burned in part of the footprint of the 2006 Esmerelda Fire, it proves that young vegetation can carry a fire, which is contrary to what proponents of prescribed burns say.

Halsey said there are other ways to protect homes in San Diego County from wildfires. Instead, the plan should focus on buffering individual properties, he said.

"Science has clearly shown now over the last 10, 15 years that the best place to do the vegetation treatment that they're proposing is right around communities," he said. "Encourage defensible space around homes, put the community golf course right up against the forest instead in the middle of the community — there's a lot of things that you can do to create a permanent solution."