Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009 | At daybreak, Rick Halsey takes a deep breath of sage-perfumed air from his Escondido yard. Like the surrounding hills, it’s flush with manzanita, mountain lilac and chamise.

Halsey has meticulously excavated all traces of cultivated plants, replacing them with native chaparral. When indigenous wrens and thrashers began visiting, Halsey knew he’d returned the land to the way it was long before he arrived.

“I love it because you can go out in the morning and breathe scents that have been here for millions of years,” he said.

But Halsey fears invasive weed lots are replacing the characteristic chaparral scrublands that define the landscape in San Diego — and, now, his own backyard. The cause: Both human-started fires and the measures people take to prevent those blazes.

Halsey’s concerns, and a lawsuit he’s filed against the county of San Diego, underlie a simmering debate about fire prevention. His nonprofit California Chaparral Institute, backed by scientists and conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, claims the county skirted environmental laws by approving tree and brush clearing that could damage the entire web of life — from mammals down to the tiniest insects — and potentially create a more fire-prone landscape.

The county Board of Supervisors, advised by its land use planners and legal counsel, says it’s safeguarding citizens with federally funded work critical to thinning tinder-dry brush. Supervisors say their plan to expand dead tree removal will help firefighters defend homes and residents flee threatened communities.

In 2003 and 2007 San Diego firestorms charred close to 800,000 acres, destroyed some 3,800 homes and led to 24 deaths. Long-term drought has emboldened pests; the bark beetle and gold-spotted oak borer are eating through water-starved swaths of oak and pine trees.

The county doesn’t have a consolidated fire department, global warming portends more wildfire, and voters yearn to be protected from the next one. Fire reality has beckoned the supervisors to ask a policy question that Halsey says can’t be answered in nature: how to stop Santa Ana-driven fires from exploding and claiming lives and homes.

‘Let’s Go For It’

Halsey is a self-taught defender of the chaparral, the plant habitat that blankets most of the county’s canyons and forests. The former biology teacher with some wildland fire training feels an intrinsic responsibility to teach people about their surroundings. He was writing a book on chaparral when the 2003 fires came and brought what he calls a rash of fear about “overgrown canyons” and “shrub-choked hillsides.” He vowed to correct misperceptions that natural lands are the enemy through an educational nonprofit, which became the California Chaparral Institute in 2004.

Halsey argues that says the county is still spending taxpayer dollars on the wrong thing: altering rural lands rather than retrofitting flammable houses.

So Halsey decided to sue after the Board of Supervisors approved additional work in May. All five board members voted to spend $7 million to remove dead, dying and diseased trees within 500 feet of evacuation corridors and homes in the backcountry. Some money will also pay for defensible space around buildings, although the county hasn’t disclosed how much money or which buildings.

Halsey estimates it costs about $1,100 to remove each tree, which means $7 million could take away 6,000 dead ones. He would rather see the county buy ember-resistant vents or 100 feet of defensible space for 6,000 homes.

Federal grants will bankroll the four-year project, along with a 10 percent match by San Diego Gas & Electric. “You’d really have to be felony dumb to turn it down,” Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said in voting to approve the funds at the May 13 meeting.

“If the federal government offered to do added police services or fire services or anything else that we’re in a need for, I’d say let’s go for it,” Supervisor Ron Roberts said. He was the only supervisor who agreed to an interview for this story. County staffers and attorneys also declined repeated interview requests.

The county compiled a report in February, which maps out plans to remove vegetation on more than 200,000 acres of unincorporated land. The board heard expert testimony in its drafting process late last year. But Halsey claims the county isn’t following that scientific advice, and this project is just the beginning of more to come.

“Everyone is in such a panic they approve everything,” Halsey said. “Nobody is asking the long-term questions. Wait a minute, is this really going to work? We’ve been doing this for 100 years and fires are still raging.”

Halsey opposes removing 500 feet of damaged trees, or one and a half football fields, rather than the county’s previous standard of 200 feet. He said such an increase is radical and requires the county to analyze the environmental impacts, a potentially lengthy process.

Instead, the board voted to exempt the project from state environmental laws.

Halsey and his supporters say such massive clearing projects can cause erosion, lead to mudslides and flooding, transport invasive pests, harm biodiversity and introduce weeds that burn faster than native plants.

Jon Keeley, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist, said the plan has the potential to damage habitat that ultimately protects us from floods and fire. Keeley is concerned crews will use machines to grind up or “masticate” chaparral, leaving flammable wood chips in the soil.

“Those masticated areas may actually ignite from embers from a fire a long way away and spread the fire even faster than it otherwise would spread,” Keeley said. “There are a lot of potential problems. That’s why you need to study it before you do it.”

Firefighters Don’t Agree

But firefighters who have been on the front lines say sick trees are like standing firewood in a wildfire.

“We feel getting whatever help we can from removing dead, dying and diseased trees along evacuation corridors and around structures is going to help us to protect our firefighters from being burned up, and remain in the area to save structures and human life,” said Thom Porter, staff chief for resource management in CalFire’s Southern California region.

Porter said dry trees can spread embers to the forest canopy, and ultimately cause more erratic fire behavior. Neither the county nor the feds have enough money to remove the legions of diseased trees but treating evacuation corridors can enable residents to escape, said Daryll Piña, a San Diego County-based CalFire captain.

“You’re going to have areas like Ramona, where there are 50,000 people who live there,” Piña said. “And if they have to evacuate at night, it gives a better chance of survivability to people who are using those arteries or corridors.”

Piña said the county wouldn’t be clear-cutting within 500 feet of roads, just removing the triple threat: dead, dying and diseased trees. Roberts said a professional forester will decide on the distance on a case-by-case basis. “It’s not a political decision,” Roberts said. “It’s a professional decision.”

Supervisors said their approach has a proven track record. The county spent nearly $47 million since 2004 to haul off nearly a half million trees, largely around Palomar and Julian.

“We took off of Mt. Palomar 96,000 trees that were dead,” Supervisor Bill Horn said at the May 13 board meeting. “And by the time the fire came in 2007, it basically saved the mountain from burning.”

Both Halsey and Keeley agree removing dead trees made sense on Palomar Mountain, a coniferous forest. But they said thinning chaparral shrub lands will cause a massive re-growth of native plants and invasive weeds ripe to burn again in a few years.

In fact, Keeley said the 2007 conflagrations charred more than 50,000 acres that had previously burned in 2003. That shows the futility of cutting down chaparral in the backcountry, he said, except for creating 100 feet of defensible space around homes or doing strategic work in areas where communities and wildlands meet.

The Lawsuit’s Central Contention

Halsey’s lawsuit contends the county must consider the scientific evidence and listen to public comment by conducting a full review of the project’s environmental impacts. The suit claims the county is breaking the law by claiming it’s exempt from state environmental laws because it faces an emergency.

“The emergency exemption is supposed to be used when the fire is raging,” said Rory Wicks, the attorney representing Halsey in the suit. “They spent seven years planning this project and they adopted it at a time in May when there was no fire raging.”

Wicks said under state law an emergency exemption applies to very short-term projects and “sudden, unexpected occurrences.” This program will take place over four years and aims to address long-term conditions, such as drought and the bark beetle infestation, so it does not qualify, Wicks said.

Halsey is worried that much more is at stake than the county’s $7 million, 3,000-acre project. He said the county has applied for grants totaling $487 million to similarly thin vegetation in 300 square miles of rural San Diego, an area the size of New York City.

“It makes the whole thing a mockery of justice,” Halsey said. “You can’t just pretend there is this ongoing emergency and exempt whatever you want to do from environmental oversight.”

The County Counsel’s office declined to be interviewed about the suit and told staff and supervisors not to respond either. The county wouldn’t comment on where or when the vegetation thinning will start. Halsey’s lawsuit will slowly make its way through the California Superior Court system in the next few months.

Rebecca Tolin is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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