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The Politics of Fire: This Is Not It

The only home (on left) to survive during the 2003 Cedar Fire on this Scripps Ranch cul-de-sac was the one with roofing made of fire-proof shingles. The eight surrounding homes that burned to the ground had wooden shake shingles. The Homeowner’s Association had attempted to prevent the homeowner of the surviving home from replacing his wooden roof due to aesthetic concerns. Credit: Richard Halsey[/caption]

The following article is a serialized story of the decade-long effort to convince intransigent government officials in San Diego County that science matters and that the region’s native chaparral ecosystem has value. In the name of fire protection, the county attempted to establish a plan that could have allowed it to clear tens of thousands of acres of native habitat without proper oversight as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The story is timely because of the current politicization of science in the United States and the impact that process can have on public policy. The story also provides valuable lessons to activists dealing with the enforcement of environmental law.

This is part VI of VII.

Click here for Part I of The Politics of Fire: The Struggle Between Science and Ideology in San Diego County

Click here for Part II of The Politics of Fire: Academic Nonsense

Click here for Part III of The Politics of Fire: Huge Fires are Natural

Click here for Part IV of The Politics of Fire: Denying the Science

Click here for Part V of The Politics of Fire: It Gets Worse

Click here for Part VII of The Politics of Fire: Attempting an End Run

Part VI: This is Not it

To many, the final draft of San Diego County’s Fire Management Plan was another disappointment.

Of the more than 30 changes submitted by the California Chaparral Institute, only one was incorporated into the fourth revision. The change was basically grammatical. “In exchange for our approval, the county promised to incorporate our requested changes,” Halsey wrote afterwards in a private email. “I honestly do not know if this failure is a lie by design or incompetence, but any way you look at it, the county deceived us.”

Although the draft included a mention of the workshop process, it listed ten “consensus points” that were never reviewed during the workshops nor given to the participants afterwards to review prior to their inclusion into the document. Several participants expressed the opinion that the points were “inaccurate, misleading, and un-useful.”

The Conservation Biology Institute, a respected scientific consulting firm specializing in the conservation and recovery of biodiversity, wrote,

Although this fourth draft is an improvement over previous drafts, it reflects partial and piece-meal updating based on various submitted comments and the workshop discussions rather than the comprehensive re-write that is necessary. This results in the report being internally inconsistent, confusing, and often self-contradictory. Moreover, despite scientific facts and logic presented to the county by numerous individuals, the report continues to perpetuate disproved myths about fires and fire management in southern California.

On January 9, 2009, the County Planning Commission held another hearing to consider the final draft. Not surprisingly, the frustration and disappointment over the county’s intransigence was clearly communicated. Of the twenty-two individuals who offered testimony, none filed an “in favor” speaker’s slip, a fact that was noted as “interesting” by John Riess, the Commission’s Chair.

During the initial presentation, Department of Planning and Land Use manager Jeff Murphy repeated the staff’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge that large-scale vegetation treatments were part of the county’s plans. “It is not anyone’s intention on staff to perform landscape-level modifications.”

Commissioner Adam Day, who was appointed by Supervisor Bill Horn and had been one of the Commission’s representatives during the report’s development, repeated the contention by saying, “There’s no proposal to do wholesale burning throughout the county.”

I beg to differ,” Halsey testified. “In the report it says, and I quote, ‘large chaparral expanses may need to be treated through controlled fire to restore health.’ The second thing, ‘fuel treatments to break-up old swaths of old class vegetation are possible.’”

Commissioner Michael Beck addressed the issue of embers entering through attic vents of homes during the 2003 and 2007 firestorms, causing the structures to ignite and burn to the ground, noting that newly designed vents are now available that can prevent this from occurring. “It’s a few hundred dollars to retrofit the vents on a house,” Beck said. “I think that was the primary cause of most of these fires on these homes. And if we had a million dollars to spend on one of these treatment areas, or just gave the money away and said here’s a million dollars to retrofit the vents on these houses. Which would be more effective in achieving our goals? I don’t understand why we’re so backwards in this.”

Beck’s comments touched on a fundamental issue that divides people regarding the natural environment – do we adapt to nature or do we try to force nature to adapt to us? For some, wildland fire is outside us, not part of us. It is something to be controlled. Hence, solutions focus on modifying the natural landscape, removing the “fuel,” fighting the fire. For others, wildland fire is part of the environment, something we need to learn to live with. The search for solutions turns inward. How can we make our homes and our communities safer from the flames? How do we allow fire to burn around us instead of through us so we can protect our families without damaging the natural environment?

Beck was looking inward. Focusing on wildland vegetation is looking outward. He reinforced one of the Chaparral Institute’s primary messages regarding the reduction of fire risk: start at the house and then move outward, not the other way around. While vegetation management is certainly an important component of the total fire-risk reduction equation, it becomes less effective the farther away it is from the structure. Interestingly, starting from within and moving out is a metaphor for the world view that allows us to remove ourselves from the egotistical center and adapt to our surroundings, no matter where we might be.

Beck’s point was lost on the other commissioners. Despite the overwhelming opposition, the Commission voted 5:1 to “acknowledge the report, to send it to the board as a draft, a work in progress, directing staff to incorporate the changes as they were stated publicly here as well as in writing…”

Beck cast the sole dissenting vote.

Referring to the Commission’s request that the Board “incorporate the changes,” Beck warned, “It is the responsibility of county government to find a solution to this problem and this is not it. It’s part of it and it’s almost there. So for us to say it’s incomplete, but here it is anyway. I know what’s going to happen when that comment gets to the board.”

As Beck had predicted, the board ignored warnings that the report was incomplete because it failed to address the entire issue. The final Vegetation Management Report was submitted to and accepted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on March 25, 2009.

An edited audio portion of the January 9 Planning Commission hearing can be found here: http://youtu.be/OTUctKbNvfY

This article is the sixth in The Politics of Fire series.

Check back soon at Independent Voter Network for the final installment.