San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to receive the County of San Diego Vegetation Management Report while noting that the March 25 decision to accept the report doesn’t equate to approving a plan itself.
“This is a starting point,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “Collectively we’re going to come up with a better plan as we move forward with this.”
The report discusses fire and vegetation issues for unincorporated San Diego County and provides recommendations for future action.
“It’s a listing of all the things that everybody’s doing,” said Tom Oberbauer, who coordinated the report on behalf of the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU).
Some speakers said that a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report was needed for the report itself. The supervisors’ action also directed county staff to conduct appropriate California Environmental Quality Act review for any new proposed projects that will implement actions identified in the Vegetation Management Plan.
Some of the items may only require a negative declaration rather than an environmental impact report. Oberbauer noted that specific elements of the plan would be implemented once county funding and staffing enable such action.
The supervisors and county staff also noted that the plan won’t replace other fire mitigation measures but is one portion of a comprehensive program.
“Vegetation management alone does not entirely mitigate losses,” said DPLU Director Eric Gibson. “We must address the topic at a systems level.”
The county’s systems approach categorizes solutions into one of six areas: vegetation management, building and fire codes, land use planning, education and outreach, fire suppression and damage assessment.
“While building codes and clearance are important, they by themselves are not the solution,” Gibson said.
“The vegetation management’s just a piece of the whole picture but a very important piece,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Citizens were concerned that vegetation management would have minimal effect in wind-driven fires, which have caused the most damage, but fuel-driven fires can be slowed down by proper management.
“Wind-driven fires are not the only fires we have experienced in this region,” Gibson said.
Between 1996 and 2007 more than 50 fires in the county burned at least 500 acres. The Sunrise fuel break that removed dead, dying, and diseased trees was credited with helping save approximately 200 homes in the Julian area during the Angel Fire of September 2007.
Similar vegetation management was credited with saving Palomar Mountain structures during the October 2007 Poomacha Fire.
The vegetation management report stemmed from a May 2008 Board of Supervisors action directing 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 that 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 assisted 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 total 842,187 acres.