The Newland Sierra property / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

We read with great interest the commentary by Bay Area scientist Tiffany Yap with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group whose lawsuits and appeals have delayed many worthy housing projects and deepened California’s housing crisis.

We’d like to set the record straight and touch on the collaborative work that is being done by cities, counties, fire officials and the development community to greatly minimize the threat of fire as we work to address our housing shortage.

Let’s start with this basic fact, which might come as a surprise to many: The vast majority of San Diego County, from the North County to southern San Diego and even along parts of the coast, is categorized as “very high fire hazard severity” areas by Cal Fire. If, as Yap advocates, home construction in such zones were to be banned, new home construction in San Diego County would effectively cease.

As we know, wildfires don’t just happen in San Diego’s backcountry. In recent years, they have struck in many non-rural areas such as Oceanside, Carlsbad and Rancho Bernardo.

Here in California, wildfires have always been a part of life, just as earthquakes and mudslides have. But this doesn’t mean we stop growing or providing homes for our children and grandchildren. It means we work together to diminish the threat by developing thoughtful plans, utilizing advanced technologies and putting in place prevention measures that work.

The fact is, San Diego County – like the rest of California – is in the midst of a historic housing crisis, where more than 70 percent of moderate-income households cannot afford to buy a home. Furthermore, SANDAG’s regional housing needs assessment reports a shortfall of 171,000 housing units in San Diego County.

This sad reality is due in large measure to NIMBYs and environmental extremist groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, who are holding up important projects while the cost of housing continues to climb. And to what end does this extremism result? It has made the American dream of homeownership unattainable for far too many working families, ultimately forcing thousands of them to leave for other counties and states where housing is more affordable.

To their credit, elected officials up and down the state, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, mayors and county supervisors, have now put the housing crisis at the top of their priority lists, promising to create an environment that spurs the construction of more housing, from condominiums in urban areas to single-family homes that are in close proximity to major freeways, employment centers and public transit.

They also have been working with the development community to strengthen building regulations and create communities that are far more resistant to wildfires. To fend off fire, homes today are built with new features, from dual-pane tempered glass windows to ember-proof vents and eaves. And no longer can certain materials be used that can advance the spread of fire.

Newland Sierra, for example, which was one of several projects referenced by Yap, is taking extensive measures to make its proposed community safer. For one, overgrown vegetation on the property, which today is a fire hazard, will be thinned significantly, and a 250-foot buffer zone will be created to separate the remaining brush from the new homes. This will not only protect these homes from flames, but also greatly restrict a potential fire from spreading to other nearby communities. The project also calls for the clustering of neighborhoods, which reduces the overall acreage of the development, meaning firefighters will have less space to defend.

With the blessing of the county fire marshal, Newland Sierra was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors last fall. It is but one example of how elected leaders, fire officials and developers are working together to make new communities – with much-needed homes – safer than ever.

Creating new housing opportunities that address the realities of living in California are essential, whether they involve fire, earthquakes, coastal erosion or any other area of concern. It’s a collaborative process that must continue if we are to make any meaningful progress tackling our housing crisis and giving future generations the chance to own their own home.

Richard Montague, a resident of San Marcos, is the former director of Aviation and Fire Management for the U.S. Forest Service’s California region. Ginger Hitzke is the president of Lemon Grove-based Hitzke Development, which specializes in providing affordable housing.  

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