Firefighters battle the Bernardo Fire. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

When brush and weeds catch fire, they help blazes snowball and spread, threatening homes and endangering lives. That’s why San Diego fire officials urge landowners to follow rules that require homes and roadways be clear of tall grass, weeds and debris.

But more than a half-dozen local fire departments don’t have the staff to enforce these “defensible space” rules, so they rely on a small private company.

That company, El Cajon-based Fire Prevention Services Inc., inspects tens of thousands of homes and lots across the county for the city of San Diego, Escondido, National City and other fire departments.

When it finds weeds, it warns landowners they aren’t following fire rules. If the landowners don’t act, the company then forces its way onto people’s land and removes what it finds flammable.

Then, the company sends a bill.

Irate landowners accuse the company of predatory practices, like selective enforcement followed by exorbitantly high fees for brush clearing.

In the past year, for instance, the company has done $132,000 worth of work for just one rural fire department, the Spring Valley-based San Miguel Fire Protection District. The average bill to property owners there was about $2,500 – the lowest bill was $800, the highest was $11,400.

If those fees aren’t paid, Fire Prevention Services can levy a special one-time tax on people’s property, known as a lien.

Over the past two decades, Fire Prevention Services has put liens on over 250 properties across San Diego County, according to county records. That means people had to pay the company in order to keep current on their property taxes or in order to sell their property.

“They’re basically, you know, roving tow truck operators that try to catch people doing the wrong thing,” said Rick Halsey, the director of the nonprofit Chaparral Institute, which pays close attention to firefighting practices and has criticized Fire Prevention Services over the years.

Eddie Villavicencio, the city of San Diego’s assistant fire marshal, also compared the company to towing companies, though he seemed to mean that as a compliment. After all, towing companies help police enforce traffic and parking rules.

The city of San Diego started using Fire Prevention Services following budget cuts two decades ago. Even now, in better budget times, the fire department only has five in-house inspectors to look at 45,000 homes in fire-prone areas near the rims of urban canyons. Those inspectors get to each house every five years or so.

But there are also about 1,000 privately owned vacant lots away from canyon rims that the city fire inspectors don’t get to. Fire Prevention Services inspects those. In 2017, the last year for which complete records are public, the company inspected 961 lots. It found problems at over a third of them.

Kenny Osborn, the company’s president, said it’s easy to spot problems. What is and isn’t a problem is defined by fire departments.

“None of these are Kenny’s rules,” Osborn said.

High grass is a problem. Debris, like trash, is a problem.

The company takes photos, gives property owners a 30-day notice and then a 10-day notice. During that time, landowners can clean up themselves, though sometimes they turn to Fire Prevention Services – the warnings can be a bit of free advertising.

But, if landowners don’t act, Fire Prevention Services goes in to do what is known as a “forced abatement.”

With approval from city of San Diego fire officials, the company did 56 forced abatements in the city in 2017.

Since the company doesn’t make money from inspections or sending out warnings, Osborn said he sometimes charges twice as much for forced abatements as he or other companies would charge if they were hired by willing landowners.

Then it may take years to get paid for the work.

At one point, to get cash, Fire Prevention Services sold the rights to collect money from landowners to La Jolla Cove Investors. The private investment firm bought the right to collect the money at a discount. Fire Prevention Services got a quick infusion of cash, and the investment group got a sure-fire return on its investment because liens accrue interest and eventually have to be paid.

“We made money on it, and I think we really helped Ken pursue his model,” said Steve Romanoff, La Jolla Cove’s general counsel. The two companies ended that arrangement years ago. But between 1996 and 2002, La Jolla Cove made about $300,000, according to a legal filing by Fire Prevention Services.

Apparently, no one else wants to do what Fire Prevention Services does, which is why the city of San Diego gives the company a no-bid contract. The city is currently working to renew that contract, Villavicencio said.

In other places, like San Miguel, the company is tasked with inspecting all the properties in the district, not just certain lots. That means driving around looking for violations at 50,000 properties across East County, or following up on reports that people submit to the company or the district.

Over the years, pissed-off landowners have repeatedly accused Fire Prevention Services of overcharging for its services.

David Wiles, a San Diego landlord, said he’s had a few run-ins with the company over the years. He said he feels like the company preys on the weak.

Still, Wiles admits that he let grass on one of his properties get out of hand and didn’t act fast enough to hire someone to do the landscaping before Fire Prevention Services came onto his property, which he said it did by going through a gate and then a fence.

“Yes, I should have done it in that period,” he said. “But I don’t feel like city enterprises should be liening against people.”

Wiles had to pay over $5,000 to sell one of his properties with a lien on it, according to a filing he made in small claims court. He lost the case.

The largest legal battle Fire Prevention Services had with a property owner came after the company cleared land in El Centro, the Imperial County town near Interstate 8. Osborn said he found a “hellhole” on the lot. The company did a forced abatement in 2003 and charged the owners $74,000 for work that the owners’ attorney later argued could have been done for less than $5,000.

The attorney for the owners said in a court filing that the couple were victims of a “unholy alliance” between the city of El Centro and Fire Prevention Services.

Eventually a jury – including jurors who didn’t like how much the company charged or how it had gone about notifying the owners – awarded the couple $124,000 in damages for their trouble. The company appealed that ruling and lost.

Fire Prevention Services once had clients as far away as Fresno, Osborn said, but he’s gradually lost business. Osborn blamed turnover on city councils. New council members, he said, don’t understand how valuable his company’s work can be.

“I’m not going to beg you to give you something for free, and I don’t want the stress in my life to go up and babysit your city council,” he said.

Some fire officials, though, seem wary of ordering forced abatements or relying on an outside company, which can be politically unpopular.

Tony Mecham, the local Cal Fire unit chief who also oversees San Diego County’s fire authority, said he does everything in his power to avoid citations. In one recent year, his firefighters inspected 22,000 properties but issued less than a dozen citations.

“Our philosophy is 99 percent of it is education,” he said.

Osborn said his company spares law-abiding citizens from paying to police properties owned by people who don’t follow the rules and create a fire risk for everyone around them.

Osborn said he isn’t getting rich.

“It’s a lot of work and although the fees seem really high, I literally drive a 2001 Ford F-350 pickup and everybody just knows I’ve got a Mercedes and it’s just not the case,” Osborn said.

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

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