Supervisors set timetable for management plan

San Diego County Board of Supervisors accepted a request from the county Planning Commission and from citizens who expressed concern at Planning Commission hearings and granted a 180-day extension for the county’s vegetation management plan.

The supervisors’ 4-0 vote, 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 supervisors action directed county staff to develop a comprehensive vegetation management program to incorporate into  land management plans for all existing and future county-owned lands and directed the county’s chief administrative officer to return to them 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 Sept. 24.

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

If the draft plan’s outline is approved, its four sections will begin with an introduction that 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 will outline plans for the nine priority areas, and the fourth will contain recommendations and next steps.

An update on the vegetation management plan was heard by the county Planning Commission Aug. 8 as a director’s report, but concerns over the effectiveness of the plan led to the five commissioners present that day asking that the issue return as an action item.  The Aug. 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 Aug. 8 comments included a suggestion to process an “early action plan” that would be separate from the report.

The Aug. 8 meeting also included comments that a comprehensive program was needed to address wildland fire threat and should  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 Aug. 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 commission’s Aug. 22 hearing included recommendations to the supervisors and a summary of comments from the Aug. 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,”  Commissioner David Kreitzer told the supervisors during the Sept. 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 clearance 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 as long as 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 Aug. 8 commission hearing, Kreitzer had noted that even a Sept. 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 the plan can 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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