Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Fire-Rescue Going Door-To-Door To Get Residents To Clear Brush

10516627_726059174103234_5065950789815632148_n_1.jpg
San Diego Fire-Rescue Going Door-To-Door To Get Residents To Clear Brush
San Diego Fire-Rescue Going Door-To-Door To Get Residents To Clear Brush
GUESTSChief Javier Mainar, San Diego Fire-Rescue DepartmentMark Kersey, San Diego City Councilman

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the threat of wildfire in San Diego is on everyone's mind during this hot and very dry season. It is on the minds of San Diego city leaders. The city fire department is planning inspections in certain neighborhoods to lend urgency to the message that homeowners need to clear defensible space around their properties. At the same time, the city says it is increasing funding for brush management at city-owned parks and canyons. Joining me to talk about this effort are my guests, San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey, to the show. MARK KERSEY: Thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Chief Javier Mainar with the San Diego Fire Rescue Department. Welcome. CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: Thank you for having me on. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Chief, what neighborhoods are getting a visit from the Fire Rescue Department? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: The city is broken into nineteen different zones that we conduct brush management in. About 4 to 6 weeks before we go out to a particular neighborhood, homeowners or property owners should receive a notice from us indicating that we will be in the area. They may not necessarily see us, eco-sometimes we can survey their parcel from a neighboring parcel. But we do not disclose where we are going to go other than that six week notice, and we do not notify which day that we will be there, partly due to scheduling issues. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are citations involved with these visits? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: Our intent is educational. We want to get people to comply with brush management regulations. Some people are unaware of them and others choose not to comply. When we find a violation copied to but we give the property owner thirty days to correct the violation. We will certainly tell them what needs to be done. If we come back and it is not corrected, we give them an additional two-week opportunity to do so. Beyond that we begin to charge $300 for each subsequent visit, and we make a referral to the city attorney's office to gain compliance. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there still some confusion on the rules regarding the 100 foot defensible space area? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: There certainly is, I hear from community groups all of the time. What is critically important for anyone who does brush management is to check in with local authorities. In the city of San Diego it would be the San Diego Fire Rescue Department or the Development Services Department, which both have a role in direct management. The rules are very strict, and if you do not follow brush management properly, you may be forced to go back in and replant the area at your own expense to get it right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In other words, people can actually go overboard in doing this. CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: They certainly can, and it is always a delicate balance between providing appropriate fire protection, and protecting biologically sensitive canyons and open space areas. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Councilmen Kersey, San Diego residents have been hearing about clearing defensible space for years. What is your take on this? Is the message getting through? MARK KERSEY: I think it is getting through. If you look at 2003, 2007, and the Bernardo fire that we had earlier this year, the defensible space, I will certainly defer to the chief on his expertise, but I'm sure he could make a pretty good case that defensible saved homes and lives. People have taken heed of these warnings. And of course the city changed building codes as well, so that we require that defensible space. Clearly, when you look at the fact that we had nearly 1600 acres that bird within the city, we had no structural damage, no deaths, no injuries, it is a testament to firefighters for all of the hard work that they did as well as residents stepping up and making changes, from how things were before. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If people are getting the message, who is the new effort aimed at? MARK KERSEY: I think broadly people are getting the message, but we need to make sure that people on an individual level are. When you look at newer develop its in the last ten years they are probably okay, for example he at last mountain ranch, where primarily the Bernardo fire was, that is a series of new developments. The new building codes were in place when those homes were built. The older communities, those are some of the areas where you don't necessarily have as much attention on defensible space, so that is what we did last fall and that will continue. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When it comes to educating the public, the whole concept of creating defensible space does not necessarily mean a total planned clearing of that 100 foot area, does it? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: That is absolutely correct. We are looking for primarily a 50% reduction in the fuel mass that is there already. If we can reduce the existing canopy, the 50% remaining and trim it up so it prevents less of a hazard, it will certainly protect your help. One of the challenges we always have during large wildfires, there are simply not enough firefighters, even with mutual aid, to station someone on each home. We should be striving for your home to defend itself even in the absence of a firefighter being there. As councilmember Kersey pointed out, that was certainly the case during the Bernardo fire, where many of the homes protected themselves. Firefighters were not protecting them, there were simply not enough of us to go around. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This whole things have a lot more complicated than I thought, should someone hire a maintenance person or a landscaper to do this for them? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: I suppose you could, but as the property owner you would still be responsible if they get wrong, regrettably. And I am sure you could still have recourse against them. I don't think it is as difficult as people make it out to be. What is critically important is that you check in with the local jurisdiction, regulations do differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. They will walk you through it in the case of our own brush management inspectors, they will tell you precisely what needs to be done to go into compliance without going beyond what needs to be done. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand it chief, is not just brush that needs clearing, what are some of the things that people store outside of their homes? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: There are regulations there too, as far as to how fire resistant things need to be in certain zones. We are looking for 100 feet of defensible space, the first 35 feet is typically the landscaped portion of your yard that is irrigated and maintained. You can also have non-inhabitable structures available there. It has to be fire resistant. The next 65 feet that typically goes into the canyon is the area that we are worried about. It cannot be irrigated, it is something that we do not want structures located around, and there are a lot of requirements. Beyond the regular brush management, you have to be worried about what you plant around your home, and how close you leave flammable furniture to your home. All of that contributes to ignition. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Councilmen Kersey, this year there has been increase in funding for brush clearing efforts on city-owned the party. Has that effort lagged in recent years? MARK KERSEY: I think like everything else, when we had our fiscal crisis, budgets were cuts. This was one of the things that suffered. This year, the mayor requested $1 million for rush veteran for the city-owned land, that is something that the a Council approved. That is going to get us about 225 acres of brush management that is something we are constantly working on, and we will be working on next year as well. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there areas that you can identify, or that the chief can identify, that are city-owned property that really need upkeep, that really need this kind of clearance? MARK KERSEY: We have some in black mountain ranch, some in Mission Valley, it is all over the city because we have canyons all around the city. It is something unique around the city, because we have urban canyons. That money will be spread throughout the city. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you drive around San Diego's suburban areas, you see a lot of developments on mesas. There is very dry foliage all the way up the hill, and then there is a fence, and then the property owner has a very small backyard. I always wonder, who is responsible for maintaining defensible space in those developments? Homeowners can clear whatever small backyard that they have, who is responsible for that hill? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: Typically property owners are responsible for the full 100 feet. If you are in a developer that has a homeowners association, typically the homeowners association is responsible to maintain brush clearance out to the 100 foot level. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how is that enforced? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: We have a team of inspectors, there are six inspectors, roughly 42,000 private parcels in the city, and another 1600 publicly owned parcels subject to brush management. Because we have a relatively small inspections staff, we only get to those parcels about once every 3.8 years. Much of this is really looking for voluntary compliance on behalf of the private sector and the public. We hold ourselves to the same standard. We also have a complaint line. People can call 619-533-4300. If they have a concern that an adjacent property is not maintained, we have inspectors that will go out and determine whether a violation exists. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think that the city might put some muscle into that? If indeed the homeowners associations or developers have responsibility to clear certain land, that the city may do outreach for them and say you need to comply with this particular requirement? MARK KERSEY: We always are looking for ways to reach out to effective members of the community on issues like this. The goal here, and the chief alluded to this, is not to get people in trouble. It is to make sure that we are ready for public safety and prepare for the next fire. We absolutely want to work with HOA, private property owners, and make sure that we are being prepared as we can be. It is a lot easier to prepare ahead of time than it is to try to clean up after the disaster. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you say, one of the major fires in May was in your district. Perhaps you could share with us some of the stories of homeowners who actually took the time and created this kind of space around their homes, you mentioned it in passing, but if you have any specific examples of houses that were significantly saved because of the time and effort that went into them to prepare them before the brush fire. MARK KERSEY: Absolutely. We just had a press event yesterday with the Mayor and the chief and I, we did it overlooking the canyon that goes through black mountain ranch, and you could see some of the homes where the fire had literally burn up through the entire canyon and up the hillside and it stopped right at the building pad, at someone's house. I think that is largely due to the defensible space and you look at what we learned in 2003 and 2007, a lot of lessons were learned there, and people have taken heed and plenty of structures were spared because of that and because of the great work of our firefighters. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about when houses that are closer together than they were in some of the developments that we saw in that area of San Diego? Does the same thing apply when it comes to defensible space? If everybody is on the same block and it is threatened, it is of course a horribly scary experience. Does that all depend on whether or not your neighbors have done the work? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: That is a great point. The 100 foot regulation applies across the city regardless of density. You're right, if you have done everything you can to fire hardened your home and do brush management, but your neighbors have not, their inaction has put your home in peril. That is what we want to hear from the public, if that is occurring we want to hear that through the complaint line so we can send someone out and get compliance. It also happens when you have your neighbors planting ornamental landscape. It probably is not appropriate for our climate here and can be easily ignited, and that ignites between homes and your home catches fire. There are some challenges neighbor to neighbor, but there are things in the code that allows us to address those issues. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Speaking with wildfire expert at the Chaparral Institute, they emphasized the need for ember resistant attic vents. Do you agree that would help protect homes? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: I absolutely do. The National Institute for Standards and Technology conducted a review of the homes that burned in Rancho Bernardo during the fires of 2007. They found that any of those homes burned as a result of ember intrusion, not direct flame impingement or radiant heat. There are events out there, some that out automatically close when a fire comes. If you do not have those, or do not have the money for those to retrofit your home, you can also put 1/8? mesh grids over the metal mesh, and that will protect embers from coming into your attic space. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think that the city might encourage that installation with rebate programs, or building codes, or something along that line? MARK KERSEY: It is certainly something we can look into. We're always looking for ways to help people make homes more fire resistant, we can certainly look into that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both a general question, how prepared to you think this city is for another wildfire outbreak? MARK KERSEY: I think we get more prepared each time there is an outbreak. If you look at the fact that we're dealing with this and it may this year, this is the first time we have had to deal with it this early in the year. It underscores the fact that we traditionally thought of fire season being in the fall. Now there is no real fire season, it is really a year-round proposition. People are much more prepared today, we have really been trying to hammer home the message of preparation. Having an evacuation plan, important papers, documents, passports, etc. ready to go, so when you get the word from the police, as they are going through your neighborhood, within a couple of minutes you are ready to leave. It is a harrowing experience. It happened to me during this round and I had to evacuate. Having to evacuate 2007 I was well prepared for what needed to be done. Having things ready that you cannot replace, like mementos from when your kids were little, it is very important. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Chief Mainar, the San Diego fire department as with all fire agencies the responded to the me wildfires were praised, and rightly so, for their ability to save so many homes. But are we prepared for the next one? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: That is a great question. I will say I was around through the 2003 and 2007 fires. We are far better prepared today than we were in 2003 and even better than 2007. A lot of that is due to our elected officials support, councilmember Kersey, Mayor Faulconer, who provided us the funds we need to address deficiencies. For example, we had no air resources in the city of San Diego when the fire stuck in 2003. We now have two fire rescue helicopters. Very expensive to purchase, very expensive to maintain, but they do a tremendous job in reducing fire loss. Each firestorm brings challenges. They are incredibly humbling. We always step back and do an after action review. I have looked at hours, even though that we feel we have done a great job, there are still dozens of learning points where we can do even better next time. We will continue to be vigilant, but we certainly need the public to join us in that vigilance. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And don't be surprised if fire department personnel knocks on your door, and tells you what are you doing about defensible space? CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR: We are certainly there to help you, we're not there to be a threatening presence. We do not want your money, we just want you to be safe. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.

City of San Diego officials Monday reminded residents to take steps to protect their property against wildfires by clearing away brush.

"Fire safety is everyone's responsibility," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. "The city is doing its part by increasing funding for brush management efforts within our open space parks and canyons. Homeowners also must take common-sense steps to protect themselves because we are all in this together."

The city's brush management regulations require all homes in wildland-urban interface areas — where the backyards of homes meet canyon vegetation or other types of open space — to have 100 feet of defensible space and take other precautions to help prevent the spread of wildfires.

In the coming months, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department will be conducting door-to-door inspections to help educate residents and make sure they are properly clearing brush around their homes.

"Fires can go from bad to worse in a very short time, so firefighters need every advantage they can get in order to successfully protect homes," said Councilman Mark Kersey, who represents the area where a 1,600-acre wildfire started in May.

"It is critical that homeowners are proactive in doing their part so, in turn, firefighters can do their jobs more effectively," he said.

City officials said San Diego has more than 500 linear miles of wildland-urban interface, and years of drought have increased the flammability of vegetation.

"I've said it before, but it bears repeating: when a wildfire strikes, we won't always be able to save every house in its path,"

San Diego fire Chief Javier Mainar said. "Prepare long before the threat of a wildfire so your home is ready in case of a fire. Help us save your house."

Homeowners should trim trees so they are at least 10 feet from a residence and clear debris from roofs and gutters, city officials said.

The city's Brush Management Guide is online and can be downloaded.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.