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Fire safety issue heats up at La Jolla Town Council meeting

San Diego Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief David Pilkerton addresses the La Jolla Town Council about fire safety.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The La Jolla Town Council heard two presentations about fire safety at its Sept. 10 meeting in an annual forum designed to educate residents about fire risk and ways to prepare for a fire emergency.

The first part of the online meeting, moderated by Town Council trustee Tara Hammond, began with a rundown of fire statistics. Since Aug. 15, she said, there have been more than 900 fires statewide, along with record temperatures and the state reporting the poorest air quality globally.

For the record:

10:39 AM, Sep. 14, 2020The photo caption with this article was updated to correct the spelling of David Pilkerton’s last name.

The fires, Hammond said, have led to serious environmental and health effects, including an increased chance of mudslides and an uptick in asthma and lung problems.

To ensure preparedness for fires, Hammond suggested visiting ready.gov/wildfires.

Hammond introduced San Diego Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief David Pilkerton, who answered questions about what the department is doing to mitigate fire risk in La Jolla. Pilkerton showed a six-page plan that identifies areas targeted for preparation drills and additional support.

Mount Soledad is one of the areas, he said, as well as the Highway 52 corridor.

“If there’s a fire,” Pilkerton said, “[the plan] tells us where the fire’s going to go. It gives us an analytical [approach] as things evolve. The technology is increasing every day.”

“If there was a fire at the base of Mount Soledad or anywhere on that mountain, we’ll send an initial attack,” Pilkerton said.

He said the call might get upgraded to a “vegetation first alarm,” which increases the number of response vehicles and personnel.

Pilkerton said the San Diego Police Department would assist with evacuations through a wireless emergency alert sent to mobile phones.

“Fire travels uphill, and it travels fast,” Pilkerton said. “Our main goal is to protect life over property.”

Town Council trustee Cody Petterson asked Pilkerton how residents can advocate to get funding “allocated in a way that adapts to this new reality” of increased fire risk.

Pilkerton said “the priority from Mayor [Kevin] Faulconer and Fire Chief [Colin] Stowell is protecting the citizens we serve. That’s the only reason we exist. I can’t worry about the fiscal side of it, that’s not what I do. But I can tell you what we did locally [is] staffed up brush rigs when we had anticipated wildland [fires].”

Beach fires

The Town Council then took up the issue of beach fires, which has been a hot topic among community groups recently.

Andi Andreae, who represents the La Jolla Shores Association on a subcommittee that includes members of La Jolla Parks & Beaches, said “our association is asking that the city limit fires at Kellogg Park [and] The Shores to propane fuels in order to mitigate the risks stemming from the air pollution emitted by wood or charcoal fires.”

Andreae, also a researcher at UC San Diego who studies air pollution from fires, said “the smoke emitted by the fires is a major health risk; it results in cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and inflammation. Recently, it’s been shown it dramatically increases the risk of death from coronavirus.”

Residents near beaches at The Shores are exposed daily to high levels of particulate pollution, Andreae said. “These are daily events; they last several hours.”

“In view of the serious health hazards related to this particular pollution,” he said, “we would like to have an alternative fuel — propane — used. That would reduce the health effects to residents and visitors.”

Dorie DeFranco, a member of the Barber Tract Neighborhood Association, said “pollutants from the fires hang around for up to 10 days at the ground level,” creating hazards long after the fires are extinguished.

In addition to the dangers posed by inhaling wood smoke, the fires cause debris pollution as the surf carries logs into the ocean and “ashes and hot embers abandoned on the beach are covered by sand,” possibly causing severe burns for unsuspecting beach-goers, DeFranco said.

Because of prevailing onshore breezes, DeFranco said, nearby homes are at fire risk from blowing embers from beach fires.

Brandon Broaddus, a community relations officer for the San Diego Police Department, said in an earlier portion of the meeting that “we currently have a task force set up to deal with this; it’s one of our top priorities.”

Police officers have found, Broaddus said, that those starting beach fires “don’t know the regulations, but we still use a progressive enforcement approach,” which goes from education to enforcement. “We’re working hard at it.”

Melinda Merryweather, representing “myself, Friends of Windansea and the Windansea Surf Club,” said: “I don’t know of any fire that was ever caused by a beach fire. We as a community love having our barbecues. It’s a tradition; it’s really important to us.”

Merryweather said she’s curious whether anyone in The Shores has “passed away from too much charcoal and wood fumes. We would like to be allowed to have barbecues at the beach.”

La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson said “we are not trying to ban fires; we are trying to find alternatives. We want everybody to work together so it’s successful for everyone in the community.”

Mike Cole, president of the Barber Tract Neighborhood Association, said the topic is “polarizing … [the BTNA board members] have not taken a position on this yet. We’re going to try to work this as a group of community organizations.”

La Jolla Parks & Beaches trustee John Leek said an effort to make beach fires illegal would have to be undertaken citywide.

“The ability to burn wood and paper in portable containers is protected by law under city ordinance,” he said. “If you want to make it illegal, you have to change the city statute.”

The La Jolla Town Council next meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8. For more information, visit lajollatowncouncil.org.