The crew was digging trenches at the “Camelot Site,” a construction project nestled in the far northeastern corner of San Diego. It sits near a string of mammoth development projects, including Black Mountain Ranch and Petco’s future headquarters.
Weather officials had warned of high fire danger throughout much of San Diego County for at least two days, and reminded residents to limit weed-whacking to early morning hours. Working with outdoor equipment in peak heat or strong wind exacerbates the likelihood of sparking a wildfire.
But on that Tuesday, the Hillside Excavating crew at the Camelot Site was still using a backhoe at 11 a.m., when a nearby weather station registered a temperature of 87 degrees, humidity dropping and wind gusts accelerating – prime fire conditions.
The survey crew and observers on site included an archaeologist, geologist, a Native American preservation specialist and a backhoe operator who would dig and then cover the trenches as part of soil testing.
Just after the crew covered one trench and moved on, smoke and flames began to emerge. The group scrambled to extinguish the blaze, but it quickly caught the dry brush.
The Bernardo Fire, which eventually torched 1,548 acres, had begun.
Fire officials tell residents that on days with high fire danger they should only use outdoor equipment before 10 a.m. and generally after 3 p.m. or later. Contractors, like the group that started the Bernardo fire, also have free rein to work at any time.
“The temperature usually peaks between 3 and 4 p.m.,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Before 10 a.m you’re anywhere between 15 and 20 degrees below the peak temperature.”
But limiting the use of outdoor equipment in San Diego to certain times of day is only a recommendation, it’s not enforced by anyone and there are no meaningful penalties for failing to comply – even when sparks start flying.
Calfire’s Daniel Berlant wrote in an email that he doesn’t believe “there is anything in state code that restricts when you can use powered equipment outdoors.”
That’s one of the reasons the Bernardo fire was quickly ruled an accident by investigators – the question of whether the crew should have been working in such conditions at all was moot.
The case is being reviewed by the district attorney and city attorney to see what precautions the crew took and whether any other fire-safety regulations were broken.
Equipment use is one of the leading causes of wildfires.
At least 16 percent of San Diego County wildfires in 2012 were started by equipment – more than any other known cause of fires that year. Calfire says it responds to 1,600 such fires across the state every year.
“It’s a community thing,” said San Diego Fire Marshal Doug Perry of the lack of teeth behind recommendations on when equipment use can take place. “You don’t want to make so many restrictions for the ‘what if?’ that economies and jobs can’t go on.”
That doesn’t mean anything goes for work in high-risk conditions.
“There are codes that require certain precautions to be taken when doing work near fire risk areas,” Berlant said.
Those precautions, essentially how residents and construction crews go about their work outdoors, are legislated and enforced. They include safety measures like keeping a shovel or fire extinguisher near the work site, securing proper permits, using spark shields and a catalog of other demands based on the situation.
The penalties for violations vary widely.
Calfire cites four scenarios where it recovered money from people or companies who did not follow the law. Someone who sparked a 1,621-acre fire near Temecula after driving a tractor with a faulty exhaust pipe near dry brush was fined $492,500.
After a downed power line ignited an 8,000 acre fire in Butte County and destroyed 47 homes while injuring 15 people, the utility company involved reimbursed the state more than $10 million.
But some precautions aren’t widely enforced.
For example, there are no specific regulations policing the use of power tools in brush management, Eddie Villavicencio of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department wrote in an email.
The department’s top recommendation, said Villavicencio: “Use common sense.” That one, especially, doesn’t seem to be policed too aggressively.
The Bernardo fire was one of several that scorched northern San Diego County over the span of a few days in May. In response, officials (like they pretty much always do) called for more resources, better equipment and for investigators to find the cause of each fire and apprehend anyone responsible and make them pay, literally.
The outcome of the Bernardo Fire investigations and whether any money can be recovered is important. California spent some $400 million a year, on average, on wildfire suppression between 2003 and 2012. Humans, not natural events like lightning, account for at least 90 percent of all blazes.
And even if stopping all daytime use of outdoor equipment would reduce the number of fires, the idea of enforcing such a time restriction is comical.
Can you imagine authorities winding through neighborhoods after 10 a.m., patrolling for weed whackers and lawn mowers? Or for construction crews to close up shop each time a Red Flag warning popped up?
“We know that work has to go on and life goes on,” said Perry. “We’re saying it’s a bad day, make sure you have all the safety precautions.”
“We have seen the enemy and it is us,” Patzert said. “We have to change our behavior.”