By Annelise Jolley
In October 2003, a series of wildfires devoured the hills of San Diego. These fires killed 15 people and damaged nearly 3,000 buildings. The firestorm changed many things, from wildland management to emergency communications to home buying. It also led to the formation of the Deer Springs Fire Safe Council.
During the firestorm, inland North County residents grew concerned by the limited number of escape routes and the lack of communication from the media and public safety officials. The media concentrated coverage on the larger Cedar Fire blaze, which meant few updates on the local Valley Center Paradise Fire. After the fires were contained, Deer Springs residents met to address their community’s disaster preparedness.
A small core of volunteers formed the Deer Springs Fire Safe Council. Today, fifteen years after its first meeting, the Council serves North Broadway, Jesmond Dene, Hidden Meadows, Rimrock, Champagne Village, Welk Resort and West Lilac in San Diego’s Inland North County. It’s run by a group of passionate, dedicated volunteers; even after receiving federal and state grant money over the years, no one on the Council takes a paycheck.
Craig Cook has served as president of Deer Springs Fire Safe Council (DSFSC) since 2005. Cook says the all-volunteer structure means there’s more community buy-in. In a sense, the Council and residents volunteer together to protect the community they love. “Once you get compensation it changes the community’s mind about what you’re doing,” Cook says. All funds raised by DSFSC go toward fire safety education and prevention initiatives, including
e-newsletters and neighborhood seminars.
“[Being] fire safe, in our minds, starts with defensible space,” says Cook. The Council serves people who live in the Wildand Urban Interface, or WUI. Thick vegetation grows near homes on the WUI, putting residents at high risk of fire damage. If flames catch in the surrounding vegetation, the house is likely to burn too, either from radiant heat or ember intrusion—the two most likely sources of structure loss in wildfires.
DSFSC recommends that residents manage their dead, dying or invasive vegetation as the first line of defense. Because flammable materials like dry vegetation present a huge fire danger, the Council educates residents about how to manage and irrigate areas within 50 to 100 feet of their houses.
To make this daunting task easier and less expensive, DSFSC launched a chipping program. “Our motto is, ‘If you cut it, we’ll chip it,’” Cook says. Once residents cut dying vegetation, DSFSC chips the materials at no cost. Chippings can then be repurposed as mulch and ground cover. Currently the Council chips between 130,000 and 300,000 cubic feet of materials every year. This program invites the community to participate in creating fire-safe neighborhoods and managing potential wildfire fuel sources. “It encourages people not only to create but to maintain that defensible space,” adds Cook.
Beyond supporting fuels management, DSFSC provides fire safety education and fire danger awareness. In partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric, the Council publishes a regular e-newsletter called Fire Safety News with articles on chipping, creating defensible space, hardening structures against wildfire, and evacuating large animals. DSFSC also hosts neighborhood seminars throughout the year covering similar topics. “We’re trying to prevent the kind of catastrophic damage that changes your life forever,” Cook says.
The Council’s goal is to equip residents to take simple and inexpensive steps toward protecting their homes. Council volunteers remind residents that fire prevention doesn’t have to be intimidating; clearing flammable materials from the yard and irrigating around the house might mean the difference between structure loss and protection. As Cook puts it, “Everything they do will improve the probability that they’re going to survive the next wildfire.”
DSFSC isn’t just about prevention. When fires begin burning that threaten their community, they send alert messages to residents registered in their emergency communication system—about 4500 phone numbers. “We also actively look at the weather stations that SDG&E has all over the county,” Cook says. When fire danger is high, DSFSC volunteers mobilize and place bright red flags on fire danger signs across the community. By monitoring SDG&E’s weather stations, the Council is able to give real-time information to residents and help them prepare for oncoming wildfires.
The small but mighty Deer Springs Fire Safe Council is changing the way residents view wildfire preparedness. Through Council initiatives, community members actively participate in making their neighborhoods and homes wildfire ready. “Our mission is to mobilize the members of our community to make the area safe,” Cook says. “We’re not only out there as teachers in the community—we also lend a hand in assisting them to become fire safe. We roll up our sleeves and get involved.” DSFSC doesn’t just tell residents what to do, it helps them do it. In partnership with the people it serves, Deer Springs Fire Safe Council is building a fire safe community for everyone.