Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007|Is living in San Diego no more than high-stakes gambling against wildfires? Some people are becoming fatalistic after the second huge fire in five years with tragic losses. But many experts are sure we could change the odds, if we are committed to reduce risks. That is not just one source of risk, but all the risks.

The public is highly aware, because of governmental and media emphasis, that reducing fuel in open spaces is needed. But people need to understand that wildland plant management is not the only, nor even the most effective, solution to wildfire risk. For instance, U.C. Berkeley fire lab expert Steven Quarles, who spoke in San Diego in 2004, stated that 60 to 70 percent of wildfire risk in California’s existing neighborhoods at the WUI is found in existing homes’ vulnerability to direct flame, embers lodging or entering, or to hot air/wind damage resulting in ember penetration. Experts in Australia and elsewhere confirm Quarles’ statement.

Yet, in response to the terrible 2003 fires, most jurisdictions focused their policy changes on further reducing fuel in wild, open spaces — plus higher standards for new construction and landscaping. Very few standards were placed on existing developed homes or yards, where great danger exists.

We are sure that in low-wind weather, with a small local fire, a wide space between a structure and wildlands with very little to burn will reduce flame size, and firefighters can take a stand to defend the home. But in a high wind, when fire fronts quickly become miles long, and embers fly far ahead, reducing fuel to make a defensible zone will not guarantee a house is safe, because the firefighters may not be at one particular house when miles of homes are endangered.

Do we need more firefighters, fire trucks and helicopters? According to experts like former fire Chief Jeff Bowman, absolutely. But will this improvement help everyone with miles of fire fronts and the winds blasting? If a home is not “pre-defended” against searing winds and embers, it will be at high risk without professional firefighters, and can be lost even if firefighters are there.

At the end of the dry season every year, the Santa Ana winds are unleashed. We know the result of that blend. Hundreds of miles of canyons carve up San Diego County. Building is very expensive or impossible on these steep slopes. Without plants, these hillsides erode in our fierce, infrequent rains and damage property downstream while undercutting properties at the upper edge. Whatever is growing on those canyons — and something will grow — some or most of it is “fuel” by the end of the dry season. When the winds are huge, the wildfires are huge.

Fire experts insist that reducing the danger significantly means altering existing structures and fuel in yards — and in the nearby adjacent wild landscape. By emphasizing fuel reduction in nearby open spaces, our governments have implied that this one source of risk is the highest priority, and so people have, in ignorance, failed to minimize danger in existing structures and yards.

All these risks need to be reduced or the odds are high of a structure burning, but how can people afford to change their existing homes and yards? There are so many components. The costs stack up very fast. Windows, roofs, doors, skylights, vents, decks, awnings, siding, balconies, trellises and fences, major trees and other garden plants, all might be the sources of risk. A homeowner might spend $20,000 to $50,000 to fix them. With around 10,000 homes on the city of San Diego WUI, and at least another 40,000 more in other areas, this would mean $1 billion to $2.5 billion would have to be allotted to where we would be likely to survive wildfires.

If this seems impossible, compare it to the estimated losses from this past week’s fires: over $2 billion and growing. Worst is the tragic harm to all the people whose lives have been turned upside down. Then consider that without taking action to pre-defend homes, these enormous costs are likely to be revisited on our region. Who would have thought only four years would pass since the last fire devastation? The staggering cost of each cycle of fire-storms makes the price of pre-defending homes start to seem reasonable.

How to pay for all of this is a daunting question. Our society places great individual responsibility on each of us. We always hope that everyone independently does their best on civic issues. Some suggest that these structures and yard conditions will need repair and can be upgraded as the owner does that work. That means many risky conditions remain in place for many years. Also, monitoring repairs to assure compliance would be hard, and many homes would not do the work as needed. But with fire risk, any vulnerable home and yard can also harm other nearby homes.

Because fire risk makes us interdependent, fixing existing homes and yards calls for more proactive public involvement. Are there leaders who could help our region develop a plan of action and locate funding sources? These might be very low interest loans, outright grants, public works projects, tax relief and insurance premium reduction — anything that will change the status quo and help people afford to retrofit existing homes and yards at the WUI in the near future.

Would San Diegans make this a high priority for public policy and funding? San Diegans showed we can provide care for a few days. Can we also come together and support ways to finance changing the odds of future disasters? If we can, then our future will look much safer, even when the Santa Anas blow.

Kay Stewart is a landscape architect based in Little Italy. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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