Thursday, June 19, 2008 | County Supervisor Bill Horn envisions a new paradigm for land management in unincorporated areas of San Diego County. He has asked the county to study the feasibility of using “controlled” fire burns in vast swathes of the county to better protect residents from periodic devastating wildfires.

The plan harkens back to age-old fire protection methods that have consistently proven effective in Baja California and on agricultural land, Horn said. It’s an effective, relatively cheap way to protect the county, he said.

Burning some or all of the vegetation on a plot of land reduces the amount of fuel available for a future wildfire to feed upon. By purposefully lighting fires within a predetermined area, Horn said, firefighters can introduce pre-burned fire breaks in strategic locations around the county and impede the progress of mega-fires.

“I think we should apply this all over the county,” Horn told the Board of Supervisors last month. “It’s going to be a whole lot cheaper for us to control some of these burns and to burn this land than it is for us to continue to buy millions of dollars of equipment.”

But the proposal has been met with skepticism by some local environmentalists, who question the science behind using controlled burns on a large scale in the county and said in many cases such prescribed burns would be unnecessary, counterproductive and even dangerous.

And while Horn presented the plan as a sweeping, countywide movement, its application is markedly limited. The vast majority of the land in the county is not owned by the county, which currently owns just 1.3 percent of the land in San Diego. Far larger areas of land are owned by the state and federal governments, which already conduct fire burns as part of their everyday vegetation management programs and are not beholden to the county in their fire prevention efforts.

Using fire to fight fire is not a new concept. CalFire has been using targeted burns to reduce the amount of built-up vegetation in parts of San Diego for decades, and, during wildfires, firefighters commonly burn out tracts of land in front of an approaching fire to stop it in its tracks.

Horn’s proposal does not just include using controlled burns. He also asked county staff to consider the application of mechanical and biological — bulldozer and goat — vegetation management methods.

The plan is just one of several efforts, large and small, being made by county and city governments in San Diego to address concerns stemming from two huge firestorms in 2003 and 2007 that burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

At the heart of Horn’s hypothesis is the concept that human intervention has stifled a natural pattern of small wildfires that once helped thin the region’s vegetation. As development has encroached on wilderness areas, fire departments have become more adept at putting out wildfires and the cleansing effect of those fires has been removed, he said.

The result, Horn said, is an unnatural build-up of vegetation that becomes an enormous potential fire risk and that exacerbates the region’s mega-fires. To counter the accumulation of fuel for wildfires, Horn suggested the county should clear or thin heavily vegetated areas of the county every few years, thus, he said, replicating the natural rhythm of wildfires.

“Once we get started and get a managed map in place, I think the threat of an outright huge fire coming all the way from the East County, or the Cleveland National Forest, into Chula Vista and San Diego, is greatly diminished,” Horn said.

But some local scientists said Horn is greatly oversimplifying what is actually an extremely complex issue.

Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit environmental group, said Horn’s proposal seems to be almost entirely based on a study from the 1980s that has since been proven again and again to be bad science.

Halsey said controlled burns may be an effective, even necessary, vegetation management technique in some parts of the country, but he said that in San Diego they are usually more damaging than helpful. And he said the notion that small wildfires were once regularly occurring natural phenomena in San Diego is simply misguided.

Although large fires have always been part of the landscape in San Diego, smaller, naturally caused fires have always been extremely rare in San Diego, Halsey said.

Most natural fires are started by lighting, he said, and San Diego, because of its climate, rarely gets the sort of lightning storms that start wildfires. The majority of wildfires in San Diego are manmade and the increase in wildfires in recent times is due to a number of human-caused factors, he said.

“You’ve got to have fuel for a fire — nobody doubts that, but it’s not going to burn unless the conditions are right,” Halsey said. “You get these huge fires now because of drought, the drying climate and winds. Lay on top of that human-caused ignitions and you’re creating the perfect storm that in the past my have only happened every 100 years or so but now they’re happening every four or five years — because of us.”

Burning large tracts of land in the interests of fuel management could also lead to increased desertification in the county, Halsey said. That’s already happened in other counties where fire departments have used the technique, he said. And replacing thick vegetation with less dense grassland — something he said is a by-product of controlled burns — would not stop wildfires from spreading, Halsey said.

Officials at the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use, which has been tasked with studying Horn’s proposal, said they haven’t yet started on the task. When they do begin to consider the issue, they plan to consult all interested parties, including environmentalists and scientists, said Ralph Steinhoff, fire service coordinator for the department.

“We’re not strong advocates of just burning everything,” Steinhoff said. “This needs to be done in the right places and for the right reasons.”

But Wayne Spencer, a conservation biologist with the Conservation Biology Institute in San Diego, said in the past the county has been less than fair in its research of this sensitive environmental issue.

A 2003 report into wildland firefighting, which included a section on controlled burns, was extremely one-sided in its analysis, Spencer said.

“It was clear that they had a preordained conclusion, and they just sort of cobbled together supposed support for it,” he said. “It was dressed up as if it was a scientific discussion, with scientific citations to justify it, but some of the citations were nonexistent and some turned the conclusions of true scientific reports on their heads.”

Whatever the report concludes, its application will be limited to the 33,888 acres the county actually owns — a tiny portion of San Diego’s backcountry.

Most of the large open spaces in San Diego — including some of the areas Horn identified in his report to the Board of Supervisors as the most overgrown zones in the county — are owned by the state or federal government.

But the county is gradually acquiring more land under the Multiple Species Conservation Program, and will eventually oversee hundreds of acres of open space. And Pete Scully, a battalion chief for CalFire, the state’s firefighting agency, said while the county of San Diego doesn’t own much land, the land it does own often abuts development and could be strategically important in the event of wildfires.

“Some of the county-owned land would probably be appropriate for some sort of vegetation management,” Scully said. “But by that I don’t mean that if it’s a 5,000-acre block of land it needs to be blackened, but it needs some sort of mosaic-type treatment.”

Horn said his intention is to scientifically study the possibility of using techniques like controlled burns on county owned land with a view to taking the county’s findings to other agencies who own large portions of land in the county.

“Our brush clearance plan is still being drafted and no one can say at this point what the plan will look like in its finished form,” according to a written statement from Horn. “When we have it finalized it will bring under one umbrella the County’s efforts to handle its own land and to coordinate with other governments, agencies, and organizations to aid in efforts to better manage State and Federal land.”

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