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.