SAN DIEGO — San Diego community leaders and wildfire evacuees gathered Wednesday next to State Route 67 to speak out against plans by SANDAG to shelve long-planned safety improvements to the highway and other major arteries.
They say SR-67 between Ramona and Lakeside is not only considered dangerous to daily motorists, but it serves as a critical escape route during wildfire. Mass evacuations during the 2007 Witch Creek blaze turned the narrow, winding road into a parking lot, with traffic backed up for hours. They also say SANDAG's executive director wants to steer TransNet funds to high-speed rail and other transit programs, at the expense of promised road improvements.
On Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors voted to implement a pre-fire strategy in its highest-risk areas to reduce wildfire loss.
The Board unanimously approved the plan presented by public safety staff with one modification: to develop a grant program to help residents in the high fire risk communities pay for fire-resistant building improvements to their homes. San Diego County CAL FIRE Division Chief and Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham told the Board the plan consists of four steps:
- Fire Authority will ramp up community education so that more homeowners understand how wildland fires start and behave and how to prevent them. This will be accomplished with community courses and workshops coordinated with Fire Safe Councils and Community Emergency Response Teams, also known as CERT.
- Fire personnel will double annual inspections on homes in fire-prone areas and recommend improvements to reduce the fire risk on their homes. Mecham told the board there are 102,000 structures in the unincorporated areas of the County and that County Fire plans to increase annual inspection of homes to 20,000 a year.
Mecham added that while San Diego County’s new construction building and fire codes are already progressive, Fire Authority staff plans to include more ember-resistant vents and eaves, landscaping guidelines and other ways to make exteriors more fire resistant. Fire Authority is also launching a new pilot program to provide ember-resistant vents to homeowners. A Knox Box grant program will also allow County Fire to purchase and install locked boxes with a copy of the house key, allowing them to gain access to homes of at-risk residents without having to resort to breaking doors.
3. Firefighters will do more to safeguard communities by reducing fire fuels such as grasses and brush. The goal is to treat 5,000 acres a year using prescribed burns, chipping and fire crews cutting back brush by hand.
4. Firefighters will help clear overhanging trees and brush over roadways that are primary and alternative evacuation corridors. The initial goal is to treat 40 additional miles of County roads and maintain 40 miles of fire roads and truck trails a year.
Mecham told the Board that County Fire will be focusing its risk reduction efforts on four communities a year. This year they will focus on the communities of Guatay and Crest, followed by Palomar Mountain and Jamul’s Lawson Valley.
To implement the plan, the County requested funding for five additional staff positions and additional contracted services through CAL FIRE to provide fire code enforcement, vegetation management, geographic information systems mapping, defensible space inspections and other support.