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Supervisors accept extension request for vegetation management plan

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors accepted a request from the county’s Planning Commission and from citizens who expressed concern at Planning Commission hearings and granted a180-day extension for the county’s vegetation management plan.

The supervisors’ 4-0 vote September 24, with Supervisor Pam Slater-Price in Washington, directed county staff to report back to the board within 180 days with the results of the County Vegetation Management Report. The supervisors’ action also received the staff report, including Planning Commission comments.

A May 14 Board of Supervisors action 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 to September 24.

The Forest Area Safety Task Force is assisting county staff in developing the vegetation management plan, and the first preliminary draft of the vegetation management plan was released July 24.

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.

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 desiring to have the issue return as an action item.

The August 8 comments included concerns from both the public and the commissioners that a comprehensive plan could not feasibly be completed within 90 days, although the August 8 comments included a suggestion to process an “early action plan” which would be separate from the report.

The August 8 meeting also included comments that a comprehensive program was needed to address wildland fire threat and should also include planning and design concepts and regulations, building standards, evacuation routes and shelters, outreach and enforcement programs on clearing, and undergrounding power lines.

Other concerns expressed August 8 were that the plan was not science-based and that more input was needed from scientists, that fires including controlled burns cause native vegetation to be replaced with more flammable non-native weeds and grasses, and that the plan may be susceptible to a California Environmental Quality Act challenge.

The Planning Commission’s August 22 hearing included recommendations to the supervisors, along with forwarding a summary of comments from the August 8 meeting. The recommendations included extending the time period for completion of the vegetation management plan report, adding herbicide treatment for non-native vegetation, and noting existing County of San Diego policies oriented toward reducing the risk of wildfire damage to structures.

“There’s a need for a comprehensive fire management program or a systems approach that would include other tools,” Planning Commissioner David Kreitzer told the supervisors during the September 24 hearing. “We’d like to make sure that this plan is sound and has broad input and is scientifically based.”

Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League told the supervisors not to rely on vegetation management for fire prevention. “A comprehensive approach is needed that learns from the 2007 fire experience,” he said.

Silver noted that preserving native vegetation may be beneficial to fire management. “Many experts believe that vegetation management may have unintended consequences,” he said.

Silver also noted the narrow scope of the Forest Area Safety Task Force and called for a separate advisory body with broader scope and expertise. “The current ad hoc informal process is not working well enough,” he said.

The supervisors welcomed a better plan provided that immediate fire risk is controlled. “I don’t mind going 180 days,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “I don’t want to study this to death.”

Horn indicated that he would welcome a report provided prior to the 180-day period. “I really would like to get this cleaned up as fast as possible,” he said. “This is more than just an ordinance.”

During the August 8 Planning Commission hearing, Kreitzer had noted that even a September 24 approval of the plan wouldn’t have allowed for implementation during the 2008 fire season and that a more fully evaluated plan would still allow for implementation by spring 2009. The supervisors hope that the plan can in fact be implemented before any 2009 wildfires begin.

“I’m not saying ignore the science or anything else,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts. “I would hope that we could find a way to move quickly.”

“They’re going to burn controlled or uncontrolled,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “There is a sense of urgency.”

“We’ve got to get on this, and I don’t want to wait 180 days to keep coming up with plans,” Horn said. “There’s got to be other ways to maintain this brush, and it needs to be now.”

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