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Vegetation management report deemed 'work in progress'

The county Planning Commission’s most recent review of the county’s draft vegetation management report deemed the report a work in progress but incomplete.

The January 9 motion approved by the Planning Commission was to accept the report, acknowledge it as a work in progress, direct county staff to incorporate comments by the public and the Planning Commission during the January 9 hearing into the report’s next version, reiterate that the vegetation management plan is only one component of structural fire protection, and request that the report return to the Planning Commission for a final review.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation will go to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, who are expected to have a March hearing on the vegetation management plan.

The January 9 vote was 5-1 in favor of the final motion, with Michael Beck in opposition and Bryan Woods absent.

“What I find almost unethical is to proceed with something that’s not ready,” Beck said. “I’m going to try to carve out some time for that last iteration to occur.”

The official motion followed a 3-3 vote on a motion not to accept the report until it was complete.

Beck, Leon Brooks, and Peder Norby (who joined the Planning Commission January 9, replacing David Kreitzer) supported that motion while Adam Day, David Pallinger, and John Riess voted in opposition.

“I’m not seeing any other agency or organization step forward,” Day said. “We’re stuck with the constraints that the board [of supervisors] has placed on us.”

In May 2008 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 burn management techniques.

In March 2008 the supervisors had directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to pinpoint the costs and provide recommendations to implement four measures related to fire protection, 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 June 2008 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 first preliminary draft of the vegetation management plan was released July 24.

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 return of the issue as an action item.

Both members of the public and the commissioners themselves felt that a comprehensive plan could not feasibly be completed by the September 24 Board of Supervisors hearing, and the August 8 comments included a suggestion to process an “early action plan” which would be separate from the report.

The August 8 comments included remarks that a comprehensive program is 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 comments 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.

On September 24 the county supervisors received the staff report, including the Planning Commission comments, and directed county staff to report back to the board within 180 days with the results of the County Vegetation Management Report.

The fourth and most recent draft of the report was released December 23.

“This report will help identify the steps we need to go forward,” said Tom Oberbauer, who is coordinating the report on behalf of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use.

Oberbauer cautioned that the report itself is not a full plan. “It’s basically an identification of all the issues,” he said.

The initial draft had four sections while the current draft contains five sections.

The plan begins with an introduction which includes the county’s fire history.

The second section addresses fuel management tools including hand cutting, mechanized tools, goats and other herbivores, herbicides, and prescribed burns.

The third section outlines plans for the nine priority areas.

The fourth section, which is the added section, addresses management of vegetation by land agencies.

The fifth section covers potential future options.

“My understanding of this process is to make sure we have a very full toolbox of options,” Oberbauer said.

Oberbauer emphasized that controlled burns are only one fuel management tool. “There’s no proposal to do full-scale controlled burning throughout the county,” he said.

Landscape contractor Greg Rubin specializes in native plants and has yet to lose a home to fire.

“What I want to emphasize is the quote-unquote recovery,” he said of burned vegetation. “The recovery’s almost completely suppressed by non-native weeds.”

Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute noted that wildland-urban interface issues were the most significant factor in protecting structures.

“There’s a fundamental false assumption that it’s native vegetation’s fault,” he said.

Retired Cleveland National Forest supervisor Anne Fege, who now serves as a botany research associate for the San Diego Natural History Museum and an adjunct professor for San Diego State University’s Department of Biology, told the Planning Commission that the report only contained six scientific references.

“The report would still benefit from having science behind it,” she said.

“There are still some outmoded concepts,” said Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League. “I think we need to persevere. We do need some more time to work.”

Diane Conklin of Ramona represented the Mussey Grade Alliance. “You need a report but not this report,” she said.

The Mussey Grade area was threatened – with some homes actually impacted – during the October 2003 Cedar Fire. “Embers travel up to a half mile or more,” Conklin said.

“You should not make a lunar landscape of San Diego’s backcountry because you’re afraid politically of another disaster,” Conklin said. “Houses burn just like chaparral. Don’t put the houses in the chaparral.”

Jeffrey Pasek, the watershed coordinator for the City of San Diego’s watershed department, told the Planning Commission that the report should include watershed functioning and local water resources.

“There’s a relation between wildland fire and watershed functions,” he said.

Cal Fire region staff chief of resource management Thom Porter noted that resources would allow for the prescribed burning of only about 7,000 acres annually, although other vegetation management techniques would increase the total area managed over a year’s time.

“This is an extremely complex issue,” he said. “I have been amazed with their ability to put something together.”

Porter noted that the vegetation management program for Palomar Mountain likely saved the area from the 2007 Poomacha Fire. “There are some success stories,” he said.

“Man has basically managed this county in the same manner, that is to burn it, to thin it,” said lifelong San Diego County resident John Elliott, who lives in Descanso.

The Native American practice of burning was replaced by 20th-century practices. “They’ve been a failure. They haven’t worked,” Elliott said.

Elliott noted that no man-made intervention was used in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park prior to its destruction in the Cedar Fire.

“It will never be the same. All the pine trees are dead. The cedar trees are dead,” he said.

“We’re going to change the way we do things. We’re going to change the way we manage our open space lands. It’s about time,” Elliott said. “The worst thing we can do is allow this management plan to morph into what we have today.”

While the Planning Commissioners acknowledged progress, they felt that components were lacking.

“If our goal is to protect life and property and ecosystem health, then you have to integrate all these things,” Beck said.

“It’s not the solution for property and lives,” Brooks said. “This one element does not accomplish that.”

Day noted that the process will explain when and how to use prescribed burns, and he credits the comments about the drawbacks of prescribed burns for improving the draft report.

“That’s exactly why we did want to go through this process,” he said.

Some of the speakers urged the undergrounding of power lines.

Day noted that the four main causes of fires were power lines, arson, lightning, and accidents which are frequently the result of campfires kindled by illegal aliens.

“We might as well start taking on the battle of immigration,” he said of the desire to address power lines.

Norby’s Carlsbad home was close to the footprint of the 1996 Harmony Grove fire.

He noted that defensible space in residential areas and urban-wildland interface are fire protection components as well as open space management.

“We should proceed very, very cautiously in the open space areas,” he said.

Beck noted that thousands of vents could be retrofitted for the cost to implement the vegetation management plan. “I don’t understand why we’re so backwards on this,” he said.

“It’s the responsibility of county government to find a solution to this problem, and this is not it,” Beck said of the report. “Our job is to say that this is not ready. It’s getting there.”

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