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Horn urges controlled burns for fire protection


Last updated 5/22/2008 at Noon

Although the County of San Diego has an open space program, the goal of that program is to preserve habitat and wildlife, and uncontrolled wildfires threaten that habitat and wildlife as well as homes and human life.

A 5-0 San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote May 14 directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to develop a comprehensive vegetation management program which would include prescribed burns as part of the county’s land management plans for county-owned or Multiple Species Conservation Program lands.

The CAO was directed to return to the supervisors within 90 days to present a plan for Board of Supervisors approval of the land management strategy and funding.

“The CAO needs to have our fire people sit down and work something out here,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “We’ve got to get proactive on managing what we do have.”

The county’s Multiple Species Conservation Program targets conservation of 172,000 acres. The land management strategy would include brush clearing to remove dead and dying vegetation and would also utilize controlled burns where appropriate.

“These areas are either going to burn controlled or uncontrolled,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

Wildfires are often part of nature’s cycle for rejuvenating forests or grasslands, and prescribed burns also allow for fire breaks to slow the progress of a subsequent nearby wildfire.

The burn conditions for the prescribed burns would be less severe than the wildfires which occur during extreme meteorological conditions such as Santa Ana winds when vegetation is at its driest.

“I think it’s important for us to eliminate the hazards,” Horn said. “I think we can eliminate some of this threat.”

Horn’s comments were augmented by four maps derived from a University of California Riverside study. In Southern California 38 percent of the chaparral, or two million acres, has burned in the past six years. At that rate all of the chaparral would be burned in 15 years, although most of the stands which burned between 2002 and 2007 were more than 50 years old.

One of the maps showed the age of vegetation stand in Southern California and in Baja California. Although Baja California’s fires aren’t controlled burns, the concentration of old vegetation was significantly less south of the international border.

“Baja allows for fires to burn,” Horn said. “They don’t have a large concentration of fuel load.”

Another map identified the greatest wildfire threats in San Diego County. Three areas were circled. One surrounds the Santa Margarita River watershed and travels from southwest Riverside County through Fallbrook, De Luz, and Camp Pendleton. A second circle also denotes a fire threat which would begin in Riverside County and shift to burn the back side of Palomar Mountain. The third area last burned in the September 1970 Laguna Fire and runs westward from Mount Laguna and Pine Valley to Jamul and Blossom Valley.

“I believe that we’re going to have to change the way we manage open space,” Horn said. “This is endangering the public.”

Jacob noted that an Environmental Impact Report is required for controlled burns of open space and that the EIR can take between one and two years to complete. “The area’s going to burn anyway,” Jacob said. “To have it burn controlled is better than uncontrolled.”

Horn noted that prescribed burning of wildland would generate some opposition. “Burning ten percent of the fuel is better than having 30 percent of it destroyed,” he said. “If we do it involuntarily we’re going to take houses with it, and I’d rather not do that.”

Horn added that those areas are naturally regenerated by fire. “Controlled burn doesn’t mean we’re going to make it scorched earth,” he said. “It’s not going to make it charred forever.”

Supervisor Greg Cox noted that the intensity of the heat from the October 2003 Cedar fire has actually prevented some conifers from returning.

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price noted that controlled burns allow for fires in less severe conditions than those which cause large wildfires and that controlled burns thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fires.

“Many of them go right along with sound environmental practice,” she said. “You’re preserving the wildland by taking this measure.”

Studies have shown that wildfires create two to five times the amount of harmful greenhouse gases and particulate matter than fires from properly conducted controlled burns.

Slater-Price noted that prescribed burns complement brush clearing measures. “We do need every tool in the toolbox,” she said.

Horn noted that any financial commitment for the controlled burns would reduce the risk of more expensive wildfire reaction. “It’s going to be a whole lot cheaper for us,” he said. “I’d much rather pay for a training exercise.”

See related items “FPUD expected to participate in future vegetation management programs” and “County to study increasing controlled burns and other measures” in the Home & Garden section of this issue.


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