To prevent wildfires, San Diego needs to do a better job of clearing brush from city land, audit says

Dead trees at Pottery Canyon in La Jolla pose what residents see as a fire risk.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Report says the city should more closely monitor about 3,000 acres in high-risk areas and revamp inconsistent policies for removing flammable brush.


A new audit says San Diego should boost its wildfire prevention efforts by more closely monitoring about 3,000 acres of city land in high-risk areas and revamping inconsistent policies governing the removal of flammable brush.

The 35-page audit says proactive efforts are especially crucial with climate change and extreme drought raising local wildfire risk. It comes as San Diego enters the region’s peak fire season, which runs from July through October.

The report says San Diego lacks comprehensive oversight of brush management, which results in inconsistent and potentially ineffective efforts by some of the 10 city departments that oversee land with high fire risk.

The audit criticizes the city’s Fire-Rescue Department for not monitoring and inspecting city-owned land in high-risk areas, which it says are common for fire departments in other cities.

It recommends a citywide brush management policy that would ensure consistent efforts and compliance, primarily by unifying the approaches taken by various city departments.

The Parks & Recreation Department — which controls 2,039 of the high-risk acres — is praised in the audit for having a comprehensive approach that includes “regular and effective” brush management.

In contrast, the Transportation and Public Utilities departments are criticized for brush management policies that are “primarily reactive” and “generally less systematic.” Public Utilities controls 649 acres and Transportation 206.

Auditors used 3,203 as the number of acres needing close wildfire monitoring based on the city’s general definition of high wildfire risk zones. But they noted that the actual number is somewhat lower than that.

That’s because although the city’s municipal code eliminates 100-foot defensible space requirements for structures built after 1989 or for land where the fire chief has approved alternative compliance, there is no easy way to calculate how many of the 3,203 acres that would eliminate.

Community leaders in La Jolla have been concerned for years about vegetation in Pottery Canyon that they perceive as a fire risk. In 2020, city representatives said they were limited in what, if any, landscaping work they could do.

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board’s efforts to get some vegetation trimmed and removed at Pottery Canyon to mitigate a perceived fire risk may have been stymied, but the group is trying to continue the mission.

Oct. 1, 2020

“We learned that the canyon is one of 30 managed open space canyon parklands and it must be kept in its natural state, so no pruning, shaping or landscaping,” then-La Jolla Parks & Beaches board member Claudia Baranowski said at the time. “All the plants, animals and natural resources are protected. They are all maintained under city, state and federal regulations. So brush management is able to thin the brush to about 50 percent vegetation coverage within 100 feet of a structure, and it happens once every 21 months or so.”

Baranowski said the city is further limited by its budget and the potential that dead eucalyptus trees in the canyon could be habitat for animals. Eucalyptus trees are highly flammable.

After last winter’s rains led to a proliferation of weeds in Pottery Canyon, a San Diego Canyonlands brush management team conducted a privately funded “spring flash fuels cleanup,” Baranowski, a current member of the La Jolla Shores Association board, said in April. The work focused on “preventing invasive weeds in those areas that had been cleared last year,” she said.

The La Jolla Shores Association will be taking the lead on Pottery Canyon maintenance issues following clarification of the group’s boundaries.

March 14, 2021

Baranowski said last week that there are no further updates on such efforts.

The new audit makes seven recommendations that city officials have agreed to implement during the current fiscal year or during fiscal 2024-25, which begins next July.

One recommendation is to require city fire officials to identify all city-owned lands that need brush management, proactively monitor them and keep records on brush management efforts there.

The audit also asks Eric Dargan, the city’s chief operating officer, to consolidate brush management responsibilities so departments aren’t handling wildfire mitigation separately. More collaboration among departments also is recommended.

The audit urges the Parks & Recreation Department to come up with brush management strategies for “paper” streets — city streets that appear on maps but have not yet been built.

It also asks the department to evaluate the contractors it has used for brush management, gather feedback on them and share it with other city departments to help them hire quality contractors.

The report additionally recommends that Fire-Rescue partner with Parks & Rec to determine how much more money the city would need to effectively carry out its overall brush management responsibilities.

In response, Dargan praised the recommendations and noted that some related progress was made before the audit.

Departments engaged in brush management efforts have been meeting to discuss best practices, he said. The Fire-Rescue Department has been pursuing grant opportunities and working with other departments to create and refine maps of high-risk areas, he added, and Fire-Rescue has asked for new employees who would be classified as wildfire mitigation specialists.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.