A recent story in The San Diego Union-Tribune outlined legitimate concerns that some environmentalists and fire experts are raising over county officials’ support for eight new housing projects, which, if approved, would add 10,000 new residential units in areas that have high fire risks.
“It’s not a matter of if but when wildfire will rip through the bucolic countryside being eyed for an opulent master-planned community, known as Adara at Otay Ranch,” the story began.
Seven times since 2003, the site where the project is planned has been hit by wildfires that scorched more than 130,000 acres — most notably the devastating Harris Fire in 2007.
But should a wildfire hit this rural South County area after the project is complete, would inhabited areas actually be devastated? That’s a much more relevant question than the most vocal Adara critics would have the public believe.
Adara’s backers say the project will be safe because its 1,100-plus homes will be built with the most recent and best fire-resistant features. The project will also have firefighters at its own station.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection official in charge of the San Diego County Fire Authority’s community risk reduction program said that fire risks at Adara are being exaggerated even if the threat is ever-present.
“We’re going to continue to have fires,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief David Nissen said. “They’re going to be a part of people’s lives in Southern California and California generally. It’s what we do to adjust to minimize risk.”
This reflects the thinking of the county Board of Supervisors, which this week voted to increase funding to limit fire risks in backcountry areas by doubling home inspections and increasing the clearing of flammable brush, among many provisions.
The environmental groups who hate sprawl and use all the legal tactics they can to thwart it aren’t likely to take Nissen seriously or to be impressed with supervisors’ actions. But in a state with a desperate need for housing stock, debates over housing projects must pivot on facts — not fear-mongering — even after several years of such destructive wildfires sweeping the state.
A recent report by public broadcasting station KQED makes the case that one California community has already established that strong fire protections can save communities from disaster: Rancho Santa Fe.
KQED detailed how the local community would seem to be ground zero for a brutal inferno — “hundreds of homes sitting on rolling hillsides, surrounded by the scrubby chaparral common to northern San Diego County.”
But, KQED reported, in 2007, when the Witch Fire raced through the area, one subdivision was essentially unaffected. “The only thing we had to do was put out a couple palm trees and the plastic trash cans that were burning,” Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Fred Cox told KQED. “The houses were perfectly OK. It was amazing.”
When concerned people present wildfires as ominous threats, they have a point. But when they depict them as beyond the ability of humans to address, their arguments lose the necessary nuance.