Fire hazards: Right down La Jolla’s streets

By Dave Schwab

daves@lajollalight.com

In La Jolla you don’t have to go far to find a high-risk wildfire hazard area. In fact, there’s one just down the block from Fire Station 16 at 2110 Via Casa Alta on Mount Soledad.

“What you have here is light, flashy fuels like this that don’t burn very hot, but they burn fast — get the fire from Point A to Point B,” said Eddie Villavicencio, fire prevention supervisor for San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

Gesturing toward a vacant lot with dry brush on top of a steep canyon rim he added, “Then, when you come down here (in the chaparral) this is where you get your intense fire that burns hotter and takes copious amounts of water to put out.”

As an older established neighborhood, La Jolla has dated infrastructure — narrow streets, widely spaced fire hydrants, wooden and overhanging roofs, etc. — that creates problems for firefighters.

“We’ve had to have vehicles moved so an ambulance and a fire engine can enter with cars parked on both sides of the street,” said Capt. Ed Cardenas of Station 16, noting access is also key during a wildfire because “evacuation is the number one priority.”

“What we try to get a homeowner to do is create a defensible space by a selective trimming and pruning of the vegetation, controlling the fire by reducing its fire fuel load,” said Villavicencio. “Reducing the height of the vegetation reduces the height of the flame. Reducing the density of the fuel load reduces the intensity of the fire. By spacing it (vegetation) out, you space out the speed of the fire.”

Villavicencio stressed firefighting in La Jolla and throughout San Diego is year-round because it’s a dry desert. He added major fire events can happen any time of year, but especially when people’s guards are down.

That reality isn’t lost on community planners like Joe LaCava, who believes La Jolla isn’t being proactive enough in addressing wildfire preparedness.

“We tend to forget we are full of open space and canyons and that the urban-wildland interface is right in our own backyard,” he said, noting some La Jollans, spared the devastation of the past two major wildfire events, think being so close to the coast and water grants them immunity.

Even the smallest fire can become big under the right conditions, noted LaCava, citing a small Sept. 26 brush fire on Avenida Amantea in Bird Rock started accidentally by hot barbecue coals that was quickly extinguished as a case where “we were lucky with very fast response from firefighters and the winds were just right.”

“But if we’d had different winds or drier conditions — it could have turned out much worse,” he warned.

There’s a two-step approach to wildlife preparedness.

“One is work hand-in-hand with the city to do brush management on city-owned canyons and open space,” LaCava said. “The other is to get more organized, start a systematic neighbor-to-neighbor conversation about what you need to do to make your house more defensible in the event of a wildfire.”

Helping communities organize to prepare for wildfires is what The Fire Safe Council of San Diego County, a state nonprofit formed in 1997 to provide education, exchange information, and foster fire prevention and fire safety, is all about.

Pointing out La Jolla has wildfire vegetation “issues” with all its canyons and steep slopes, Marty Leavitt, president of the regional council, said it’s a lot easier to organize “on a neighborhood basis where you have more commonality of issues and concerns.”

She added neighbors need to “take responsibility for their own properties” in clearing brush to maintain 100 feet of defensible space as required by law.

“It’s not just clearing brush but hardening the structure — removing stacks of wood, debris, furniture, fencing, anything that can catch on fire,” she said.

Noting late September through early November is “our most vulnerable time for wildfires,” Robert Balfour, senior forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in San Diego said.

“We’re predicting at least two moderate, off-shore Santa Ana wind events with rainfall likely occurring in early November in Southern California.” He added the weather forecast is for normal rainfall so “the fire outlook from October through December looks pretty good based on that.”

Brush abatement problems can be reported to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's Brush and Weed Hotline at (619) 533-4444 or go to

tinyurl.com/5uqcltc

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For more information about Fire Safe Councils visit

www.firesafesdcounty.org

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To see maps of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones in La Jolla and nearby areasgo to

tinyurl.com/3uzdt2

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