Joseph Manrique, a rancher in Harmony Grove, worries traffic from new development will make it hard for him and his horses to flee a fire. / Photo by Ry Rivard

The deadly Camp Fire in Northern California is drawing attention to thousands of new houses planned for fire-prone areas of San Diego County.

Some of the developments – like Newland Sierra near San Marcos or Lilac Hills Ranch near Valley Center – were already controversial because they would be new suburbs in what are now at least somewhat rural areas. Developers are selling the projects as essential, given the region’s housing shortage.

The homes won’t be much of a solution, though, if they burn down.

The developers behind these projects vouch for the safety of each and have to submit fire protection plans to the county. In some cases, developers have also said adding new homes in fire-prone areas could make those areas safer because they will have to follow new building codes and could act as fire breaks that protect older homes nearby.

Several developments are planned on sites that have burned in the past. That’s perhaps not unusual, given that much of San Diego County east of the coast and west of the desert has burned over the past century.

But it makes a compelling argument for activists who say developers are putting people in harm’s way.

“That’s the name of the next fire we’ve come up with, the I Told You So Fire,” said Kevin Barnard, a board member at the Escondido Creek Conservancy.

Barnard is part of a group of residents trying to derail new developments planned for the rural areas between San Marcos and Escondido known as Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove, where about 2,100 people live.

The County Board of Supervisors in July approved two new projects for the area, the 453-unit Harmony Grove Village South project by Colorado-based Real Capital Solutions and the 326-unit Valiano project by Encinitas-based Integral Communities.

Existing residents argue they will soon be in grave danger. Part of the Valiano project site, then a citrus and avocado orchard, burned in the 2014 Cocos Fire.

Residents were already almost trapped in a traffic jam as people fled the Cocos Fire. They argue putting hundreds more people in the area without a major road expansion is a recipe for disaster.

The fire also burned up to the edge of the property where Harmony Grove Village South is planned, a site that also partly burned in the 1997 Del Dios Fire.

If another fire should strike the area, county fire and police officials have said they have a plan to get current and future residents out.

Some developers’ fire protection plans argue that new homes help rather than hurt surrounding communities during a fire.

Valiano’s plan, written by Escondido-based consultant Firewise 2000 Inc., will decrease the fire risk because the developers will replace “very combustible native vegetation” with “ignition-resident landscaping” and also install fire hydrants.

Right now, the biggest fire risks in California are where rural areas meet human development, the so-called wildland-urban interface. Once an area has converted from half and half to entirely urban, it’s at less risk for a fire. This means cities are generally safe from conflagrations, though the deadly fire that destroyed Paradise this month and the burning of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood in last year’s Tubbs Fire are devastating exceptions to this rule of thumb.

In the fire protection plan for Harmony Grove Village South, developers acknowledge fires have struck within three miles of the project site about every seven years over the past century. The largest of those include a 40,000-acre fire in 1943 and the 2007 Witch Fire that burned nearly 200,000 acres and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

In the plan, developers argue that a new development already under construction in the area, known as Harmony Grove Village – not to be confused with Harmony Grove Village South – is already converting most of the valley into an urban landscape. That less-flammable area will act a fire break protecting Harmony Grove Village South, argues the plan’s author, Encinitas-based engineering firm Dudek.

Dudek’s fire protection planner, Michael Huff, has worked over the past two decades on many large developments throughout San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. He said fire codes have improved and that projects are turned away when they don’t do enough to protect residents.

“I’m a proponent for what is being done in this county and in other parts of this state, but I certainly understand that there is major focus on this issue especially when you have fires burning the last couple of weeks,” he said.

Huff said newer homes are simply less flammable than older ones. Take the Witch Fire, for example. Of the 8,300 structures inside the fire’s perimeter, 13 percent were damaged or destroyed. But less than 3 percent of the structures built using then-new building codes were damaged or destroyed, according to an analysis by the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

“It shows the codes working,” Huff said.

The codes require things like fire-resistant roofs, areas around homes clear of thick or flammable plants and features for firefighters, like hydrants and roads that trucks can travel through and turn around on.

Because of these, some developers argue their homes can be a shield if they are between an approaching fire and older homes. The theory is, the fire will stop or be easier to fight there, creating a “fire break.”

“There is benefit to that for existing communities,” Huff said.

Several fire protection plans for proposed developments make this argument: The fire plan by Baltimore-based Jensen Hughes for Otay 250, a 3,158-unit project by Sunroad Enterprises near Chula Vista, makes that argument.

Dudek’s fire plan for a development near Chula Vista makes a similar argument. The 1,119-unit project by Jackson Pendo Development Company goes by two different names – Otay Ranch Village 14 and Planning Areas 16/19 is the long-winded name county bureaucrats use, but the developers prefer marketing the project as Adara at Otay Ranch.

The 2007 Harris Fire burned 90,000 acres, including a large portion of the 1,300-acre project site, and there have been nearly 70 fires recorded within five miles of the site in the last 108 years. But, in the future, Dudek said, the project would clear away some flammable vegetation and create irrigated landscape so that future fire “may encroach upon and burn around, but would not burn through the valley with the same spread patterns as it has in the past.”

Dudek’s fire plan for Newland Sierra, a 2,100-unit project by Newland Communities near San Marcos, says that project will  also “provide a substantial fuel break, significantly interrupting the continuous fuels” that would allow a fire to be driven by the Santa Ana winds toward San Marcos.

“Fuels,” in this case, means plants.

Huff said developers are converting sometimes dry, flammable wildlands into “ignition-resistant landscapes.” But even his plans come with disclaimers of sorts. One that Dudek wrote for Otay Village 14 says the plan “does not guarantee that a fire will not occur or will not result in injury, loss of life, or loss of property.”

Of course, planning to remove lots of native plants triggers a whole other fight, between rural developers and environmental activists.

Earlier this month, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote the county supervisors a letter arguing that people, not plants, are the problem. The group estimated that the supervisors are “knowingly” putting people in harm’s way because they have approved or are considering projects that will put about 40,000 people into about 15,000 new homes in areas that regularly experience fires.

The center argues wildland fires are inevitable, so officials should focus more on putting people into denser, safer cities than on rural, flammable frontier.

The Oakland-based author of the center’s analysis, Tiffany Yap, said fire-resistant isn’t the same as fire-proof.

“The No. 1 thing that planners can do is not put homes in these fire-prone areas,” she said.

Officials have been cautious not to guarantee something they can’t guarantee.

Before the Board of Supervisors approved Newland Sierra in September, the supervisors asked County Fire Chief Tony Mecham to tell them about the project’s fire risk. For a few minutes, Mecham talked about all the positive features – how nearby firefighters are ready if something happens, how the project has extra buffer zones around it and how even the homes are clustered in a way that would make them easier to defend.

That said, fire is fire.

“So, overall, I think that they have done as much as they can to mitigate the threat of fire,” Mecham said. “We will never completely mitigate the threat of fire in San Diego County.”

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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