San Diego has been hit by multiple raging wildfires over the last several years, and when temperatures rise, so do residents’ fears about the safety of their homes.
San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said that despite La Jolla’s coastal position and Mediterranean climate, “it’s still an environment meant to burn.”
“La Jolla presents unique challenges because of its steep topography and access issues in some of the older areas, with narrow streets and winding roads,” he said. “The other challenge is that it’s a beautiful area to live with lots of vegetation, so we don’t see the same brush management as in other areas.”
Mainar said the area also encompasses many older homes that lack fire prevention features like boxed eaves or non-combustible roofs and decks.
Then there is the issue of emergency response. While La Jolla isn’t directly impacted by the brownouts (financial cutbacks that prevent some station resources from operating at certain times) that have been instituted in other parts of the city, both Station 35 in University City and Station 21 and Pacific Beach are affected.
“Those are both units that come in to support emergency activities in La Jolla proper, so that area is impacted,” Mainar said. “We are working with fewer resources than we would like to have.”
Stewart Gary, a longtime firefighter, retired fire chief and fire practice principal for Citygate Associates, recently participated in a regional study to assess vulnerability and resources in the event of another major fire.
“San Diego, as a region, already spends over $500 million per year on fire prevention,” Gary said. “While there is a lot of cooperation and coordination among the 50-plus agencies, there is some fragmentation as well.”
Gary said the study recommended that the County Board of Supervisors lower the number of fire dispatch centers to facilitate better communication. He also said the study identifed 11 areas throughout the city “where it would be desirable to locate additional fire stations,” one being North Torrey Pines.
After the study, Gary said that Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office hired the team to collaborate with the fire chief on a “very detailed micro study” on the city to provide advice about where to locate and how to staff fire stations. The study began in early August and should be released by the end of the year, he said.
Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, contributed to another study dedicated to fire protection investment in Southern California. The study compared per capita spending on fire services and emergency medical response in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
“What we found is that, adding up the expenditures of all various jurisdictions that provide fire services, San Diego spends a significantly smaller amount than either [of the other counties],” Bruvold said.
The numbers showed that Los Angeles County’s per-capita expenditures were $219.77, Orange County’s were $190 and San Diego County’s were $153.75.
Bruvold said San Diego’s firefighting resources are often stretched thin when Santa Ana wind conditions fuel fires to the north, then blow south over a period of days.
“The way the mutual-aid system works, the firefighters are already on the lines and deployed in those areas,” Bruvold said. “That means there are fewer resources close to San Diego during those first 36 hours.”
La Jolla faces specific challenges, too, Bruvold added. “Many homes in La Jolla are on the urban-wildland interface, particularly in the Mount Soledad area,” he said.
In those areas, he said, fires often spread more quickly and can be harder for emergency personnel to reach.
PREPARING FOR FUTURE WILDFIRES
“In a large wildfire event, there aren’t enough firefighters to protect every home,” Mainar said. “You can do a lot to help yourself.”
One key tactic, he said, involves creating a defensible space of about 100 feet between wildlife and the home to give firefighters room to work and to create a barrier between the flames. The first 35 feet or so usually includes irrigated landscape, and the last 65 feet is natural vegetation.
“If you thin that last area to about 50 percent of its normal mass, that makes it more difficult for fire to get a really strong run,” Mainar said.
He advised removing flammable items such as patio furniture and woodpiles from near the home, replacing roofs with non-combustible materials, replacing single-pane windows with dual-pane and covering attic vents with 1/8-inch mesh and chimneys with 1/4-inch mesh.
Once a fire actually occurs, Mainar said the standard advice has changed from “leave early or stay and defend” to a plan called “ready, set, go,” in light of the deaths that occurred last year during wildfires in Australia where residents tried to save their homes.
“Do as much as you can to prepare yourself and your home in advance, have an evacuation plan, gather up an emergency kit, determine where you’d meet your family and what you’d do with your pets all before the fact,” Mainar said. “Once the fire is occurring, closely monitor what authorities tell you. If the fire appears it may be threatening your home or community, get out of the area.”
Many wildfire deaths occur when people wait too long and are caught on the roadway or exit their vehicles and are overrun by the flames, he said. “We want you safe and out of the way. Do what you can, then let the firefighters handle the situation,” he said.
FIRESCAPING YOUR HOME
Two local landscaping companies, KRC Rock and California’s Own Native Landscape Design, Inc., work with property owners throughout San Diego to “firescape” their properties, or maximize the defensibility of homes and buildings in the event of wildfires.
David Garcia, general manager of KRC Rock, said that the first 30 feet in front of a house is the most critical area for fire defense and should include a high proportion of hardscape, like gravel, rock, pavers, flagstone and similar materials.
“Almost everyone whose home was damaged in previous fires changed their landscaping to hardscaping,” Garcia said. “It creates an important barrier, it looks nice and it’s cost effective.” Decorative gravel can be installed for as low as 15 cents per square foot, he added.
When firescaping the area from 30 to 100 feet away from a house, Greg Rubin, landscape specialist and owner of California’s Own Native Landscape design, said that the types of plants used in landscaping matter less than whether or not they are properly hydrated. “Everything can burn, but just about everything can be fire resistant if watered sufficiently and brought to the right hydration levels,” he said.
Rubin recommends not clearing the ground completely because “it’s almost immediately replaced with highly flammable weeds.” Instead, he said his team usually thins the area’s canopy coverage by about 50 percent, which removes 60 to 80 percent of its fuel volume. Then, the team mulches the trimmings and puts it back into the ground to prevent soil erosion and weed growth.
“We also implement paths that break up the plants into groupings and also double as fire breaks,” he said.
Rubin said that when planting new vegetation, his team uses low-growing ground covers “with just a smattering of shrubs,” with a preference for native plants.
“They require less water to stay in a fire resistant condition, they stabilize slopes and they attract local wildlife like birds and butterflies,” he said.
Rubin said his company charges $100 per hour for an initial property assessment and to determine a client’s expectations. Then, his team prepares a proposal with itemized cost estimates. “It’s not uncommon for us to carve out a mature landscape from what already exists,” he said. “Rather than destroy the ecology, we work with it.”
To learn more or schedule an appointment, call California’s Own Native Landscape Design, Inc. at (760) 746-6870 or visit www.calown.com. The site features case studies demonstrating how homes with the company’s landscaping design fared after fires.
To learn more about KRC Rock, visit www.krcrock.com or call (760) 744-1036. The company offers discounts to victims whose homes were destroyed by previous wildfires.