Recommendations on vegetation management plan likely at Planning Commission meeting


Last updated 8/21/2008 at Noon

The August 22 meeting of the county’s Planning Commission will likely see the commission make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on a proposed vegetation management plan for the county.

An update on the vegetation management plan was heard by the Planning Commission August 8 as a director’s report, but concerns over the effectiveness of the plan led to the five commissioners present that day to support having the issue return as an action item.

“Let’s find the right solution to the problem,” said Planning Commissioner Michael Beck.

Beck noted that most of the October 2007 fires were caused by downed power lines while the cause of most of the lost homes from those fires was Santa Ana winds.

“I’m just wondering how this strategy would address either of these,” Beck said. “We’re not addressing the fundamental cause.”

While Commissioner Adam Day voted to return the matter to the commission with recommendations and also recognizes that land use planning, building standards, and other factors share importance with vegetation management, Day noted that vegetation management was one of the tools needed and that a vegetation management plan could be implemented with other standards.

“This one aspect of firefighting can be addressed in a comprehensive document,” he said. “What’s on the ground now presents a huge risk.”

The May 14 meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors directed county staff to develop a comprehensive vegetation management program to be incorporated into the land management plans for all existing and future county-owned lands and directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to return to the supervisors within 90 days to present such a plan which would include mechanical, biological, and prescribed burns.

The supervisors’ summer recess extended the 90-day period, and the supervisors’ hearing is tentatively scheduled for September 24.

On March 25 the supervisors directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to pinpoint the costs and provide recommendations to implement four measures, one of which was working with the San Diego Forest Area Safety Task Force to create a risk assessment of vegetative fuels.

The Forest Area Safety Task Force is assisting county staff in developing the vegetation management plan, and by the supervisors’ June 25 hearing the task force had released a fuels assessment map which identified the ten highest-priority areas.

A subsequent decision to merge the Highway 94 Corridor East and Tecate Divide North areas into Southeast County reduced that number to nine.

The top nine projects to be considered, in order of priority, are Palomar Mountain, the Laguna East I-8 Corridor, Southeast County, Greater Julian, San Luis Rey West, Rancho (Penasquitos/Bernardo/Santa Fe), Santa Margarita, Northeast County Warners, and Cuyamaca-Laguna.

The project boundaries of those nine areas total 842,187 acres. Each road and parcel with an improvement value of more than $10,000 was buffered by 500 feet, and the buffer areas within each project boundary were merged to define target zones. The target zones total 395,250 acres.

The San Luis Rey West area totals 124,930 acres, including 106,388 acres comprising target zones.

The Santa Margarita area totals 29,182 acres, including 15,409 target zone acres.

The first preliminary draft of the vegetation management plan was released July 24. “We’re at the very early stages of developing that plan,” said county Department of Planning and Land Use interim deputy director Jeff Murphy.

If the draft plan’s outline is approved, the plan’s four sections will begin with an introduction which includes the county’s fire history. The second section will address fuel management tools including hand cutting, goats and other masticators, and prescribed burns. The third section outlines plans for the nine priority areas, while the fourth section will contain recommendations and next steps.

The San Luis Rey West area includes Bonsall, Lilac, Rainbow, Pala, Pauma Valley, Valley Center, Twin Oaks, and Jesmond Dene and has a large coverage of old growth chaparral of mixed health.

The area has also seen significant residential development in recent decades. While controlled burns might be used to some degree, the urbanized nature may necessitate masticators to a larger degree.

The draft plan also includes a priority matrix based on population (including daily visitors as well as seasonal and year-round population), escape routes, safe zones such as golf courses and open fields where citizens could take shelter in a fire, the fuel hazard based on fuel load as well as age and type of fuel, the risk of ignition, the amount of infrastructure needing protection from wildfire, and the need to manipulate the fire cycle to maintain ecological value.

Priority matrix points were also given to specific areas within some project areas. Within the San Luis Rey West area the Pala site ranked highest with 17 out of 21 possible priority points, the Gopher Canyon, Lilac, and Deer Springs/Mountain Meadows areas each had 16 points, and the Rice Canyon/Rainbow area had 15 points. The San Luis Rey West area itself had 17 points.

The Santa Margarita area had 16 points, although specific site areas of De Luz and Rainbow were not prioritized. Treatment would involve controlled burns and mastication.

Murphy noted that the plan wasn’t limited to controlled burns. “It’s also hand clearing. It’s also mechanical clearing,” he said.

“I hope we’re not locked into any one premise,” Beck said. “I hope that toolbox is going to include all the land use planning that’s available.”

Wildland interface policies and building standards are already in place for new development, so the vegetation management plan is more oriented toward protecting existing structures.

Beck hopes that the supervisors will allow additional time. “This timeline sounds completely unrealistic to me,” he said. “This has long-term, long-ranging, very significant implications to the entire wildland areas of San Diego, and it’s on the fast track.”

Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League told the Planning Commission that the lessons learned from the October 2007 fires emphasized structure safety.

“We are not incorporating lessons from the 2007 fires,” he said. “The draft proposal will divert scarce dollars away from things that really do work.”

Landscape contractor Greg Rubin specializes in native plants and has yet to lose a home to fire. “Native plants can possess unparalleled fire resistance,” he said.

“Recently-burned areas are rapidly invaded by non-native species,” said Michael White of the Conservation Biology Institute.

White added that some species, such as the California gnatcatcher, prefer older vegetation.

Planning Commissioner David Kreitzer noted that a September 24 Board of Supervisors action wouldn’t allow for implementation during the 2008 fire season and that more preparation would still allow the plan to be implemented by spring 2009.

“Just a vegetation management program itself I don’t think is going to be sufficient,” Kreitzer said.

Day noted that a comprehensive plan would include a vegetation management component. “I think it’s going to benefit everybody,” he said.

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