Fire crews work to put out hot spots in a Fallbrook community that was hit by the Lilac Fire. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

California’s record-shattering 2020 fire season capped a string of devastating seasons that began in 2017 and saw both ends of the state plagued by massive blazes. This year’s fires spread quickly, blanketed cities and countryside with choking smoke and disrupted the daily lives of Californians for much of the summer and fall. And the risk has continued into winter: Winds this week could bring heightened fire danger to Southern California, which hasn’t yet received enough rain to end the fire season.

But San Diego has largely escaped the conflagrations seen in other parts of California over the last several years. This fact has not gone unnoticed by those who study fire. Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California at Merced, and her colleagues have actually wondered: Is San Diego just lucky? Or is it doing something right?

As the state reckons with a future of extreme wildfire and climate change, San Diego’s experience with fire could offer lessons for a path forward.

A Fire Disaster and a Commission

Since 2017, there have been improvements on the margins but no major reforms in how California manages, prepares for or warns about wildfires.

The last time an official, state-level public inquiry to determine how catastrophic fires started, spread and what should be done was undertaken was in 2004, following an October 2003 outbreak of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires in Southern California that burned a combined 739,600 acres, destroyed 3631 homes and killed 24. The deadliest of those was San Diego’s 273,246-acre Cedar Fire, which started in East County’s Cleveland National Forest and exploded to the west, almost reaching the Interstate-5 corridor.

The 2004 Governors Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, a joint effort between former Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, was established to “present recommendations to make California less vulnerable to disasters of such enormity in the future.”

The problem is, the commission was heavily represented by politicians and firefighting agencies. It was light on direct input from academics, scientists and the public – particularly those who experienced the worst effects of the fires. And climate change is not mentioned once in the 247-page report, even though the science had established that wildfires would worsen as temperatures rise.

“These panels are mostly politicians and not necessarily experts, and the experts are from agencies who often have a stake in [the outcome],” said Kolden.

The result was a lopsided list of recommendations largely focused on shoring up firefighting agencies and addressing gaps in how the fires were fought, she said.

Thomas Shoots, fire captain and public information officer with Cal Fire/ San Diego County Fire, described the county’s firefighting operations as more modernized, streamlined and coordinated than they were in 2003, and with a lot more firefighting equipment at the ready to stop fires while they are still small.

“The gist is we have more resources and it’s easier to get these resources to the fire quickly because of technology,” he said.

Moving forward after 2020, however, many experts argue that we have already reached the limits of the effectiveness of increasing firefighting capacity.

“A very strict fire suppression policy worked half a century ago,” said Teresa Feo, a senior science officer at the California Council on Science and Technology, which recently released a report on the costs of wildfire in California.

But with climate change, a buildup of flammable vegetation and development patterns that push communities further into wildlands, fires are often burning too quickly and too intensely to be stopped.

“The fires that are happening are exceeding our ability to suppress them,” she said.

Thinking Beyond Firefighting

In the mountains east of San Diego, in the Cleveland National Forest, Stephen Fillmore, a prescribed fire and fuels management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, has been working for years on the kind of solution that scientists say we need much more of in order to live with fire in a warming climate.

“We’ve been thinning the forest to appropriate densities so it’s not too thick,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”

His team first clears an area mechanically and then follows that with prescribed fire – intentionally burning the landscape as it would have burned naturally before we started putting out most fires.

He estimates that they treat about 2,000 acres a year.

The idea is to avoid what’s known as “high severity” fire, which burns hot, sometimes to the treetops, and can permanently damage the forest. It’s on the rise for a number of reasons, including warmer and drier fire seasons and overgrown forests due to firefighting.

High severity fires are also hard to control.

“We’ve had many fires that have started up there, and none of them have really gotten away,” he said, referring to Mount Laguna and surrounding areas in the last several years.

To slow fire near communities, Fillmore’s team has also cleared firebreaks around several backcountry towns, including Alpine, Julian and Pine Valley.

Powerline Ignitions

Powerline fires have historically happened when strong winds damage electrical equipment, sending a spark into dry vegetation. They are particularly dangerous because, if conditions are sufficiently flammable, those winds then cause the fire to grow rapidly, and multiple fast-moving blazes can emerge at the same time. After its equipment was traced to a devastating spate of fires in 2007, San Diego Gas and Electric introduced what it calls public safety power shutoffs: cutting power to parts of the region to avoid these ignitions. These have served as a model for other utilities.  Pacific Gas and Electric, the Northern California utility that has been widely criticized for disastrous recent powerline ignitions as well as its sweeping power shutoffs in 2019, “worked extensively with SDG&E to understand and implement best practices from SDG&E’s de-energization program”, according to PG&E’s 2020 Wildfire Mitigation Plan.

“When we look at the data on the science side, SDG&E has substantially reduced their ignitions in the last 20 years,” Kolden said.

San Diego’s mountains and foothills, which typically record the strongest Santa Ana winds, are at high risk for powerline fires.

“We’re not getting as many fires out in the backcountry where they can really take off and spread,” said Shoots, with Cal Fire San Diego. “It’s nice to have one of the more major causes of our large wildfires be out of the picture.”

Power shutoffs do not, however, guard against other types of ignitions — the Cedar Fire was started by a lost hunter who set signal fires. And during Santa Ana season, backcountry communities are now losing electricity repeatedly, which comes with unseen costs that the state has yet to quantify.

Still, SDG&E’s system of targeted power shutoffs combined with powerline “hardening” to reduce electrical failures may help explain the absence of large-scale fire in the county since 2007.

Fillmore, the forest manager, thinks another reason San Diego has avoided a major fire disaster might be the vast burn scars left by the 2003 and 2007 fires, which traversed much of the county, and have acted as a buffer around more flammable areas.

But those scars are now 13 to 17 years old.

“I’m a little concerned because we are coming up on that time horizon,” he said. “I think these burn scars are going to become available to burn again.”

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