The framework of a home remains standing after the Lilac Fires engulfs a Fallbrook community. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In the past 20 months, California has seen seven of the largest fires in state history and lost more than 22,000 homes to wildfires. A million homes face wildfire risk in California, 88,000 in San Diego alone. Scientists and the state are telling us that wildfires will increase in frequency and severity over the coming decades, that we need to shift our building pattern from sprawl in rural areas to more urbanized infill areas. With that backdrop, well-meaning but tone-deaf advocates for car-centric sprawl attempt to blindly dismiss concerns about fire risk in a recent letter to the editor.

One argument the authors make (echoing the building industry line) for making exceptions to the county’s general plan for high-risk sprawl projects is that the entire San Diego region is in a “very high fire severity zone,” therefore limiting construction in those zones would essentially kill construction everywhere. No one is suggesting that, and furthermore, it is incorrect.

Cal Fire’s scientifically derived “fire hazard severity zones” overlays are based on available fuel load, topography and a high likelihood that a fire could start and spread quickly in a particular area. If you look at the map of San Diego County you will see that, indeed, much of it is covered in “very high fire hazard severity zones.” The largest, contiguous swaths of these zones are in the undeveloped areas of East County and North County. It is why the general plan avoids density in those areas. In the western, more urbanized parts of the county, the “very high” fire hazard zones are isolated areas adjacent to canyons, parks or open space (like Torrey Pines or Miramar).

These are clearly very different areas. One is more defensible because it has urban development surrounding it, limiting fuel for a fire to spread. The other has over a million acres of contiguous brush and open space, creating the conditions for wildfires like the Cedar Fire in October 2003 that burned at the rate of 46 football fields per minute for a total of 273,000 acres, destroying 2,800 structures and killing 12 people.

Established science shows that the majority of property damage and destruction from wildfire in California is located in less dense, rural areas, where there’s more fuel and a higher likelihood of structure loss. This is why the county’s general plan avoids those areas. This is not controversial.

A recent report by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s wildfire strike force wisely recommends that the state “begin to deprioritize new development in areas of the most extreme fire risk. In turn, more urban and lower-risk regions in the state must prioritize increasing infill development and overall housing production.”

Outgoing CalFire Director Ken Pimlott told the Associated Press last fall, “we must consider prohibiting construction in particularly vulnerable areas.” Even Sen. Scott Weiner’s recent controversial housing bill, SB 50, created exemptions to increased density in ”very high” fire zones.

Some of our decision-makers recognize that encouraging infill and urban density is more sustainable, reduces commutes and greenhouse gases and, importantly, is much less likely to be destroyed by the increasingly frequent wildfires the state will be facing in the coming decades.

Pro-sprawl activists claim that the county will protect these far-flung sprawl developments through hardened construction standards, shelter-in-place policies and orderly, staged evacuations. But none of this is backed by science and, in fact, puts people at risk.

Existing construction standards for homes in high fire-risk areas are already very stringent. The Thomas Fire in December 2017 showed that the highest standards were not enough. More than 90 percent of the structures destroyed had fire-resistant construction. In the Tubbs fire in October 2017, 86 percent of the homes destroyed were built after 2008, with the highest wildfire construction standards. Non-combustible siding and roofing, interior sprinklers, enclosed eaves were no match for softball-sized embers slamming into homes at 60 miles per hour. Shelter-in-place should only be used as a last resort, not as the primary means to protect a community.

The Associated Press recently evaluated California communities and evacuation routes and found numerous areas in San Diego County that were in the top 1 percent of worst communities when it comes to population-to-evacuation-route ratios including Jamul, Ramona and Scripps Ranch.

The head of the County Fire Authority, Chief Tony Mecham, has given his blessing to sprawl projects in high-risk areas (including waivers to secondary egress requirements) by saying that the errors of the past will be corrected by a more “surgical” evacuation whereby people will be evacuated by block in order to avoid gridlock. During Coco’s Fire in May 2014 thousands of cars were at a standstill for close to two hours while wildfire burned less than a mile uphill from residents of San Elijo Hills. Only a last-minute change of wind directionprevented a catastrophe. And rigorous studies have shown that “staged” evacuations do not help in rural areas.

The mayor of Paradise, a traffic specialist by trade, meticulously planned for fire evacuations, including communitywide drills and staged evacuations. Needless to say, that system failed spectacularly, and the entire town was destroyed. San Diego County has not implemented the same level of planning. In essence, those charged with our safety are using anecdote and ignoring science to dismiss fire safety concerns.

As the county contemplates approving general plan amendment projects in fire corridors and rural areas of the county such as Lilac Hills and Otay 14, they have ignored the realities of evacuating rural communities. Incredibly, developers are only required to look at mythical evacuation scenarios whereby only the project’s residents’ vehicles would be evacuating, conveniently ignoring the existing residents and their many vehicles. For one project, independent fire and traffic consultants concluded that in a standard fire scenario, “catastrophic losses are not only probable, but expected.”

It is time we start taking this seriously before it is too late.

JP Theberge runs a public opinion and market research company and is the creator of Grow the San Diego Way, providing data and analysis on housing issues in San Diego County.

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