Wildfires: San Diego’s Ecological Elephant in the Room

Image Source:  Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

By Lawrence A. Herzog

If the unusually hot, dry January weather in San Diego was not enough to remind us of global warming, interim Mayor Todd Gloria recently doubled down in his State of the City address when he vowed that “San Diego will be a global leader in addressing climate change.”

It’s good news that Gloria and others are advocating for policies that will make San Diego more sustainable, from zero waste, bicycle friendly streets, and building retrofits, to recycled water and alternative transit. However, there is one glaring ecological threat that hovers over our region’s policy makers:  wildfires.

Consider our recent history:  over the last decade or so, we’ve had two of the most frightening and environmentally devastating wildfires in the nation. The 2003 and 2007 mega-fires burned several million acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes, and caused over one half million people to be evacuated from their residences.   We all remember the white soot suspended over the regions for days, even along our normally breezy shores. We recall the thick, acrid air that kept us indoors.

But I’m not sure most San Diegans realize the extent to which we dodged a bullet in 2007.  If the wind direction at a key moment in that firestorm had not suddenly switched from the westerly course it was locked on, to a southerly path (and then later to its more normal easterly flow), San Diego might today be the west coast icon for “greatest urban disasters in U.S. history.” A huge swath of our urban region could have burned to the ground.  Hundreds of thousands of buildings might have been destroyed, and tens of thousands left homeless.  Untold numbers might have lost their lives.

We’ve forgotten those details from October 2007:  two raging mega-fires, poised like pincers heading from two directions toward the very heart of our city.  To the north, a conflagration began at Witch Creek, near the town of Santa Ysabel, and quickly spread. It soon was an inferno of smoke and flames scorching its way across the northern suburbs of Escondido, Ramona, Poway, and Rancho Bernardo.  The fire then jumped the I-15 freeway, burned its way down along the Del Dios Highway around Lake Hodges and into Rancho Santa Fe.  It was now headed toward two plus million who lived in and around the core of the city of San Diego. This was getting scary.

Meanwhile, to the south at Harris Ranch Road in Potrero, near the Mexican border town of Tecate, the second “pincer,” the Harris fire, was spreading north and west, aimed at south county’s most densely populated suburbs of east Chula Vista, and then north toward downtown San Diego…

Thousands of San Diegans had valuables loaded in our cars, wondering which direction to flee.

Then, by a sheer whimsy of nature, we were spared a much bigger horror.  Winds suddenly shifted carrying moisture from the sea, the air grew more humid, and the fires were brought under control.  We all returned to our houses, and moved our valuables out of our cars.

Problem solved?  I think not.

Did we learn anything from those two wildfires?

A cursory glance at wildfire maps from 2003 and 2007 confirms a simple point:  these firestorms did not smolder in some distant wilderness.  They burned in exactly the places where most people have moved in the San Diego region over the last three decades– Escondido, Chula Vista, Poway, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Santa Fe, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Ramona, Jamul, Alpine, Dulzura, Valley Center.

What was once the “back country,” the eastern fringes of our region, is now suburbia.  But it is also what ecologists call the “Wildland Urban Interface (WUI),” an arc defining the space where mountains and open spaces to the east, bump up against our fastest growing suburbs.

This is our burn zone.  We need to figure out how to protect it in the future.

So, have our elected officials and local government agencies stepped up and crafted a “climate change” strategy for these fire-prone inland suburbs?  Not yet.

The current ‘state of the art” in local wildfire policy centers around funding for new helicopters to drop water on the fires, purchasing more fire trucks, creating guidelines for vegetation clearing, teaching residents about fire safety for their homes, and better oversight of evacuation routes during wildfires.

All very useful… to a point.  But, where is the collective wisdom of our region’s leadership when faced with the obvious fact that wildfires are burning in our fastest growing suburbs?  Where is the land management plan for what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) calls “fire hazard severity zones”?

On this our leaders have been silent.  For example, how many elected officials have openly supported the Fire Hazard Zone prevention fee, which charges homeowners a small annual fee ($150) to pay for future fire prevention or fire suppression?  How many have come out in favor of more fire-safe zoning and site design rules? How many new community fire stations are being built?

Voters can play a role here, too.  But we must ask ourselves whether we too are part of the problem.  An LA times writer aptly captured this back in 2007, when he wrote: “The question is never—why am I building here on this hillside, that predictably catches fire every few years….it is instead, how can technology and new materials—how can progress—protect me from the dangers inherent in living where I have chosen to live?”

This region will burn again. When the next mega-wildfire hits, do we really want to leave our fate to the whimsy of nature? Again?  Are we going to rely on some yet undiscovered new technology to magically snuff out the next mega-blaze?

Meanwhile, fire ecology experts tell us that massive tract developments, especially those perched on the edges of cliffs in fire-prone eastern suburbs, become giant stacks of fuel that feed naturally occurring wildfires, turning them into raging infernos that expand to levels impossible to control, even with helicopters dropping buckets of water, and the finest fleet of fire trucks.

Three out of four homes built in San Diego since 1990 lie in this wildland danger zone.

Until we look at how we build and where we build, our region’s climate change elephant will remain in the room.

Lawrence A. Herzog is Professor of City Planning, School of Public Affairs, San Diego State University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and essays.   His latest book, Global Suburbs: Urban Sprawl From the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro (Routledge Press), will be published in the summer, 2014.


  1. avatarAnna Daniels says

    Some of us still remember the 1985 Normal Heights fire. The lack of sufficient water pressure impacted firefighters’ ability to put out the blaze. Fire is a threat in the urban core too. Our water infrastructure is essential for many reasons. The city has been replacing water mains in older communities, some of which still have hundred year old cast iron pipes.
    An important topic Larry. SDFP is looking forward to hearing more from you.

  2. avatarJohn says

    ““The question is never—why am I building here on this hillside, that predictably catches fire every few years….it is instead, how can technology and new materials—how can progress—protect me from the dangers inherent in living where I have chosen to live?””

    What’s the point, hate ourselves for being human, a cancer that the earth must rid itself of before it can be healthy? (don’t scoff, some people freely express this)

    “Meanwhile, fire ecology experts tell us that massive tract developments, especially those perched on the edges of cliffs in fire-prone eastern suburbs, become giant stacks of fuel that feed naturally occurring wildfires, turning them into raging infernos that expand to levels impossible to control, even with helicopters dropping buckets of water, and the finest fleet of fire trucks.”

    This may be true but it’s why one Los Angeles area city placed strict conditions on building codes so it’s virtually impossible for many homes to catch fire. While technology was mocked in the previous quoted passage that has been a great success.

    Let’s face it, in a real firestorm like the 2003 fire- much more troubling than 2007 as there was more old growth fuel, you can’t deploy enough fire trucks and aviation resources to put much of a dent in it. Fire crews can be put in certain neighborhoods and decide which homes they can take a stand to protect- and it’s up to planning by homeowners and the people who designed and built the homes if their efforts will have any chance.
    Also in the case of Southern California at least, the philosophy that these are “natural” events man should stand by and witness helplessly simply doesn’t hold water. This area of the country does not have the frequency of thunderstorms (as say, Colorado) where lightning strikes cause wildfires naturally.
    Most of these fires are set by man- and Climate Change has little or nothing to do with any of this except if someone is looking to heap on the pile of reasons to hate humans for their footprint on the earth.

    • avatarAndy Cohen says

      Point of clarification: The 2003 Cedar fire (the one that rolled through Tierrasanta and Scripps Ranch) was man made (guy got lost in the backcountry and sparked the wildfire trying to start a campfire or signal fire), as was the 2007 Witch Fire (I think that’s the one) that was started by downed SDG&E power lines. So they were not “naturally occurring.”

      • avatarJohn says

        Perhaps you should have directed that reply to the article rather than my comment. Read it again, where I said that they were “natural” doesn’t hold water, and most (SoCal fires in general) are set by man. At least we’re in agreement.
        To expand on the good point you raised, these fires obviously didn’t need to happen, making much of this discussion moot.

    • avatar says

      John, while I agree it is of no use to think of humans as a “cancer” on the earth, it would be productive to continually re-evaluate our impact on the planet because we depend on it for everything.

      Regarding technological fixes to wildfire, yes you are right, there are a lot of things we can do with structural design and retrofits to reduce the risk of homes burning. However, no home is “virtually impossible” to burn. As a firefighter, I have seen countless homes with 300 feet of clearance, concrete construction, boxed eaves, the works, burn to the ground. The reason? They were located in fire corridors that are impossible to defend and equally impossible to construct a livable home within that is impenetrable by fire. This is what Larry has done an excellent job explaining. The only solution is to zone these areas as unbuildable in the same way we do with earthquake faults now.

      Finally, large, intense wildfires are indeed natural in southern California. What is not natural is the ignition and the frequency. The age of the vegetation has little to do with the occurrence of these fires. While San Diego County likes to blame the environment and clear habitat as a solution, it is a short term fix at best, an approach that increases flammability (through the spread of weeds) as more likely (never mind the destruction of the natural environment). While climate change isn’t responsible for more fires, it can be responsible for drier conditions that will increase the likelihood of ignitions.

      The California Chaparral Institute has a wealth of information on these topics on their website.

  3. avatar says

    I predict that most fire control resources will be stationed in Rancho Santa Fe with the least being stationed in Chula Vista. The homes up there are valued in the millions, and it seems that the higher priced real estate gets the bulk of the fire protection.

    • avatarJohn says

      And better police protection, better schools, better maintained streets, more street lights, better parks… and much higher property taxes paid to fund all of it. Reality is not always appealing but it can’t be denied.

    • avatar says

      Rancho Santa Fe is it’s own Fire Protection District. The residents of the District decide how many resources they want to field based on the property to be protected, they then tax themselves and budget accordingly. If they would save a certain amount on their homeowners insurance by building another Fire Station (and hiring firefighters to staff it) at “x” cost and the savings pencil out, they build it. Simple.

      The City of Chula Vista is its own City with its own Municipal Fire Department. The same sort of reasoning applies, except the taxpayers in the city pay for all the city services out of one General Budget (and sometimes many sub-accounts), whereas a Fire Protection District only does fire (and Emergency Medical Services). Sorry, no conspiracy here. Thank you, please drive thru . . . .

      What we really need is a County Fire Department to be able to enjoy the economy of scale like Orange County and LA County instead of 50+ different fire agencies each with their own overhead and administrative bloat. None but the City of San Diego are really big enough to specialize so the other 17 cities and five Fire Protection Districts with paid, career firefighters just muddle along. In the unincorporated areas of the County it’s FAR worse since the County uses either volunteers or orders off of CalFIRE’s “Dollar Menu” for Fire Protection. You get what you pay for and the County wants no part of the responsibility of protecting all the cranky “rugged individualist, serial non-learners” in the backcountry who only whinge about ANOTHER $150.00 on TOP of the insanely high taxes they already pay . . . . Who could really blame them?

      What will be sad to watch is when the lessons learned by the 30 career firefighter departments, struggling with their own staffing issues, are going to react very differently the next time the cheapskate cousins in the unincorporated areas of the County cry “Fire!” In 2003 everyone “sent the world” into the backcountry–for a short time the City of San Diego had only one engine in service in the city while they frantically called back off duty crews to staff the reserve apparatus. Smaller cities sent almost all they had as well. This was NOT the case in 2007. I’m guessing it was about half of that. And what happened to city budgets in 2008? Those were the fat times: fully staffed stations (instead of now saving money calling back overtimers in lieu of hiring more bodies or eliminating positions), newer rigs with more serviceable reserve rigs (now cities are deferring maintenance and keeping rigs in frontline status instead of moving them to reserve and replacing them sooner). Imagine what the next major conflagration will bring? Especially if the fires start to the north of us and those counties cut off some of the Mutual Aid coming from further away (as happened in both previous firestorms)? We’re in a literal cul-de-sac down here. I heard talk of cities just lining up their own taxpayers’ funded equipment at the city limits, let the back country burn and wait for the fire to come to them. How do you think the residents of 4S Ranch felt when their houses burned while their firefighters were out in Ramona?

      We have a HUGE recognized and codified need, but no collective will to tackle changing the extant structural problems needed to solve it. The irony is that collectively, due to the redundancy and waste, we end up spending even more money than our neighbor counties to the north per capita for what we get in real Fire Protection. And the two firestorms in 2003 and 2007 EACH cost the area over one BILLION dollars in economic impact. Two Billion dollars buys a hell of a lot of Fire Protection.

      And now we’re going to stand by while the GOP buys their anointed puppet his own city to manage and mine more tax dollars for their shareholders.

      Serial non-learners indeed.

  4. avatarbob dorn says

    Another shoe dropping is, higher premiums for homeowner’s insurance. We had to drop our own because for 2014 Farmers hiked our premium more than 30%, without explanation. The agent apologized, but could do nothing; it came from headquarters. Because we live in a state with a modern and relatively enlightened government, California Fair exists to provide insurance for those who can’t find an affordable policy. It exists only to cover fire losses.

  5. avatarthoughtfulbear says

    Does anyone else recall a study of some sort that was done just a very few years back – believe LA Times had an article about it – re being able to actually map the areas that form natural “highways” as it were, for Santa Ana winds to come howling through, down from the Southern California interior?

    Those areas are Down In Front for wildfire danger, especially during our current drought-afflicted times.

    But you know what? I wouldn’t take a bet that most if not all of those areas have been pretty well urbanized, such as Professor Herzog’s article describes…

  6. avatarJim Bliesner says

    Nice article Larry and look forward to your book. I am curious whether the solutions that you suggest have been incorporated into the regions/City’s “climate action plans”. The ability of the region to reduce carbon emissions is greatly reduced with the burning of all that vegetation. Any comprehensive climate action plan should address your concerns as well.

  7. avatarMiriam says

    Supervisors pushing forward monster-scale energy projects in the backcountry, each of them a giant fire hazard with severe and unmitigatable risks, is absolutely insane. The exploding Campo wind turbine earlier this month could have sparked an inferno if it had occurred during Santa Ana winds. Massive solar farms can’t be depowered easily so they are also fire hazards in a firestorm. A substation fire in Escondido burned for days – just imagine if one of the new substations in rural East County goes boom. All of these big wind and solar projects need more powerlines – and SDG&E lines caused 166 fires in 5 years. Plus these projects are draining groundwater for construction out there, making everything even drier. Stop building dangerous fire hazards in our highest fire-risk areas!

    • avatarJohn says

      That’s really a heckuva dilemma there, the reason those things are being built there is to support populations of those areas and the region in general- yet the only reason people care about a wildfire in the area is because they live there. If nobody lived there they wouldn’t care about the fires and the fires wouldn’t happen in the first place.
      One issue I didn’t see brought up here was that when man builds out there he builds paved roads for access- and while imperfect (yes I realize fires often jump highways) roads essentially serve as the same thing as the first weapon fire crews employ- firebreaks. Perhaps that should be one of the ways technology or practices can improve to stop deadly wildfires. An overall masterplan for long term development could include roads being strategically placed- and made wide enough, additionally with gravel covered buffer zones, that would isolate urban San Diego and stop a firestorm in its tracks- or at least give firecrews a viable front line to defend.

  8. avatarFrank Landis says

    REALLY worth reading in conjunction with this is the USGS Wildfire Risk Scenario Project:

    The best data the USGS has says that prepping your home and the landscaping around your home is your best defense, followed by clearances 100 feet to 300 feet from your house. In that order. There’s no data that show that clearing beyond 300 feet has any effect at all on whether your house survives during a Santa Ana driven fire. However, you have to prepare the landscaping right up against your house: you can’t have a little island of dry pine and palm trees right under the eaves and expect to escape unscathed, even if there’s 100 feet of clearance between your precious pines and the wildlands. CalFire does provide advice, and I urge everyone to protect their homes now.

    Note that over 90% of home losses happen during the monster, Santa Ana driven fires. Much of the stuff CalFire and other organizations urge only works on small scale fires that can be controlled by hand crews. That’s okay, 90% of the time. The problem is that those fires are little threat in any case, and as homeowners, we need to worry about the Santa Ana fires more than about the little ones.

    Firebreaks are also largely worthless, especially in stopping Santa Ana fires. They do allow firefighters to get in, and they do give firefighters a safer place from which to work. They don’t stop any but the smallest fires. When the Santa Anas blow, you need fire breaks that are something like a mile wide to actually stop the embers from spreading on the wind, and hopefully you’ll see how pointless an exercise it would be to make and maintain such monsters.

    Finally we fo have to worry about the politics of fire. There’s a fairly huge amount of money behind making massive fire breaks and massive clearances in the back country. For example, CalFire’s trying to fund this for over 30% of the entire state under their Vegetation Treatment Program, under the idea that this will all keep us safe from fire. Unfortunately, it won’t. If they clear every 10 or 15 years (per CalFire’s Vegetation Treatment Program’s recommendation), the weeds that will come in will be every bit as flammable as the vegetation they remove. From the outside, it looks like a nascent Wildfire-Industrial-Complex, where the ultimate goal is to funnel a lot of public money to private contractors under the idea of “Keeping the Public Safe From Fire.” As with the Military Industrial Complex and their unending War on Terror, it’s unlikely such efforts will actually make us any safer, but they will make big profits for those doing the clearances. It’s always worth reading alarmist articles about wildfires with the sneaking suspicion that the authors may have a financial stake in encouraging people to pay huge money for huge, and ineffective, fire protection projects.

    • avatarJohn says

      What if every homeowner had a pool and a gas powered pump- and even if they required mandatory evac, the pump could have electric start, feed a sprinkler system, and be activated by a smart phone app remotely activated by the owner who observed his own security cameras with the same app? The fire approaches, he soaks the property, no strain on the water supply putting fire crews at risk and there should be more than enough water in that pool to do the job.
      As silly as it sounds all the equipment and technology exists today and much of it is in use by many people, like the smart phone monitoring system for your home. I guess the sprinklers (I mean rooftop, as well as yard) don’t presently exist and the pump could be activated by existing remote security systems.
      This all may seem like an expensive luxury (folly, even) to homeowners merely thinking about the value of the structure, but I bet those who lost a lifetime’s worth of irreplaceable possessions might feel otherwise.
      For those with a pool already it seems viable.

  9. avatarJohn says

    In fact I think you could engineer and market the whole system in one compact package if the pump could incorporate a large enough sprinkler head to soak the house, or maybe have a couple of satellites attached by hose for full coverage. Set it next to the pool, with a suction hose, battery power for a pan-tilt camera (since you couldn’t guess which way the fire came from inn advance in some instances) which also powers the starter. Once its running an alternator will recharge the battery.
    Sounds like a winner, by the time I get the patent filed the Chinese will have it on the street for half what I could make it for.

  10. avatarSally says

    Thank you Lawrence Herzog for trying to educate San Diegans to
    have a plan for fire disasters and climate change not just crisis management. Building in a high risk fire zone these days is like building in North Carolina in a hurricane flood zone.
    Everyone pays for disasters.
    One other consideration for people moving out of the city is escaping crime and affordable housing. All need to be part of a complex thought process for modern
    life with the situation we face now. Education whether received or not is critical
    to being a part of the answer. Cudos to Professor Herzog.