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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | Two years ago, in the wake of the Cedar Fire, a city of San Diego report suggested sweeping changes to the city’s brush-thinning requirements.

The report said the city should, ideally, be thinning about 590 acres of its open space every year to keep city-owned land as fire-safe as possible. That would require a full-time staff of about 33 people, the report said.

The Brush Off

  • The Issue: The city of San Diego has been encouraging homeowners to cut back their gardens and nearby canyons to minimize fire risks, but thousands of acres of city land, much of it in canyons, is not being cleared.
  • What It Means: Because of budgetary constraints, the city is not able to properly manage its open space, and many city-owned canyons lie clogged with dense, combustible vegetation.
  • The Bigger Picture: The 2003 Cedar Fire claimed 15 lives and burned more than 700,000 acres. A 2005 city report states “if the Santa Ana wind had continued, it is likely that the fire could have burned all the way to the ocean.”

The city today has three full-time staff for managing brush management, down from 20 in 1987. The city’s annual target for brush thinning is 70 acres, less than 12 percent of the ideal brush management level.

“It’s not enough,” said Stacey LoMedico, director of the city’s Park and Recreation Department. “But while we can’t accomplish what our goal should be, we’re doing what we can with our limited resources.”

The Fire-Rescue Department has been shining the spotlight on brush management recently, encouraging homeowners who live in properties bordering canyons to thin the vegetation abutting their homes.

Brush management has become a particularly hot topic this year as a lack of rainfall has left wild areas and canyons abnormally dry and susceptible to fires. The winter frost also killed off some of the region’s vegetation, leaving large quantities of combustible material in canyons and wooded areas.

That the city has not implemented the recommendations of the 2005 report did not come as a surprise to Jeff Bowman, who was San Diego’s fire chief when the report came out.

Bowman, now interim fire chief at the Oceanside Fire Department, said he was “fairly stunned” to see how much city-owned land was in violation of brush codes when he worked in San Diego. He said brush management was one of many issues of concern he raised when he was in San Diego.

“We had the largest fire in the history of this state in 2003, and I assumed that would be a catalyst for change. It hasn’t been at all, in any area. They haven’t improved staffing, they haven’t improved the brush management problem; there are many, many outcomes from that fire that haven’t changed,” Bowman said.

According to the 2005 report, the city owns 24,000 acres of open space managed by Park and Recreation, which creates approximately 220 miles of “urban wildland interface,” or areas where homes rub shoulders with undeveloped land, often covered in native and non-native plants.

San Diego’s fire marshal, Sam Oates, said the city’s brush management program for open space and canyons is far from perfect, but said San Diego’s financial crisis has dampened any hopes of ramping up brush management efforts in the near future. He said the city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of government may have nudged brush management off the political radar.

“A lot of things that were done in that report were not done under the mayor’s watch, and some of those things, I would venture to say, have not risen to the level where it’s an issue to him. It just doesn’t get out of the department because of all the other priorities you have competing,” Oates said.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said funding for brush management is, indeed, competing with hundreds of other funding priorities. Sanders inherited hundreds of problems, Sainz said, none of which has a quick or easy solution.

“Obviously, it is the mayor’s preference that effective brush management were to occur citywide,” Sainz said. “But the city does have limited financial resources, so we will do the very best that we can.”

The Park and Recreation Department, faced with the restrictions of its limited brush management staff, now works hand-in-hand with the Fire-Rescue Department to identify the parcels of open space around the city that are most in need of thinning.

David Monroe, acting deputy director for open space at the Parks and Recreation Department, said the department has a three-tier system for establishing which areas of the city need to be tackled first.

At the beginning of each fiscal year, Monroe said, his department meets with the fire officials to schedule which parcels of open space around the city will need thinning that year. The fire marshal also contacts the city throughout the year when it identifies additional areas that need to be trimmed back. The Park and Recreation Department also receive complaints and requests directly from the public or via council offices, Monroe said.

How long it takes the city to get to each complaint or request for thinning depends on where they happen to be working, said George Flores, a city utility worker who works on brush management.

On Tuesday, Flores was working with a brush management team on a stretch of city owned canyon in Rancho Peñasquitos. He said if a team is working on an area and receives a complaint nearby, they may be able to get there soon. However, if no work is scheduled near the complaint, Flores said, homeowners could be waiting as long as 18 months before the city gets there.

Homeowners can, however, get permits to thin city land that they think poses a threat to their property themselves, Monroe said. The city issues guidelines to homeowners who want to take brush management into their own hands, he said.

Sainz said the city is actively pursuing a $3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration that it would use to fund its brush management program. That grant application has been in the works since 2004, Sainz said, but there’s no word yet on whether the city will get the money.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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