THE BRUSH-OFF: Are La Jollans ignoring canyon fire code?

San Diego Municipal Code requires a perimeter of 100 feet free of overgrown brush behind every canyon home.

Wildfire danger continues to threaten La Jolla’s canyons, as it does many other areas across Southern California. But preventing devastating wildfires such as last year’s Camp Fire — the worst in California history, which killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 Butte County residences — requires, first and foremost, proper brush management. And a small, non-scientific La Jolla Light survey suggested that about half of La Jolla’s canyon homeowners may be in violation of brush-management code.

The City of San Diego’s Landscape Regulations (SDMC 142.0412) require brush management for a perimeter of 100 feet extending from the rear of every home abutting a wildland-urban interface or WUI (defined as canyons and other areas where homes are built next to land prone to wildfires). In this definition, brush is defined as shrubby native and non-native plants that have adapted to dry summers and moist winters. dead or alive, and management is defined as regular thinning and pruning, but not complete removal.

According to San Diego Fire-Rescue assistant fire marshal Eddie Villavicencio, brush management “allows fire crews time to get to a fire, allows space to fight the fire and increases a home’s survivability during a wildfire.”

Homes or developments built after Nov. 15, 1989 have sole brush-management responsibility, according to Villavicencio, and homes built before that date — where 100 feet of defensible space cannot be achieved — may have shared brush-management responsibility with abutting property owners.

During a random hour-long check on Jan. 18, La Jolla Light identified dozens of houses on Mt. Soledad without apparent brush management. In fact, nearly half of all houses located in or atop of canyons seemed to have some overgrown brush directly behind them. However, when e-mailed the photo accompanying this article, Villavicencio said that the answer was not as simple as a visual inspection by a novice.

“An actual on-site inspection is required to determine if a property is in violation,” Villavicencio said. “Should the slope behind these homes be greater than 50 percent gradient, the area behind the homes could be exempt from brush-management requirement because of potential erosion or slope instability.”

Villavicencio said that the Fire-Rescue Department’s Wildland Management & Enforcement Section (WM&E) only has one code-compliance supervisor and six code-compliance officers assigned to inspect the entire City — which means that the inspection cycle is only completed once every five years. Every year, about 45,000 brush inspections are conducted by this team, Villavicencio said, with another 1,500 inspections generated by neighbor complaints.

In 2017, Villavicencio said, WM&E inspected more than 2,000 canyon-rim homes in the Mt. Soledad community. While Villavicencio did not state how many properties were found not to be in compliance, he stated that any violations were brought into full compliance.

When voluntary compliance is not achieved within six weeks of an initial violation notice, Villavicencio explained, a 10-day abatement notice is issued. If non-compliance continues, a special-assessment lien-tax is placed on the property and a private contractor assigned — at the property owner’s expense — to bring it into compliance. (Determining whether vacant dwellings violate any codes or regulations is the jurisidction of the enforcement authority of the City’s Code Enforcement Department, Villavicencio said, so the fire department is required to refer all such complaints.)

“Unfortunately,” Villavicencio said, “99.99 percent of people know what needs to be done, but they wait until they get a violation notice to do it.”

—To report brush concern dangers in your neighborhood call (619) 533-4444.