A Decade Later
When man-made forces came upon the Scripps Ranch community on Oct. 26, 2003, the people responded. Their commitment, contributions and efforts from that day on has made 92131 a fire safe place where the residents of the well-known “Country Living” community are proud of where they live today. We talked with Jerry Mitchell, director of the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council and the members who have spearheaded the Council, to learn what they have accomplished since the fires moved through the community a decade ago. The Council and their Alliance has received accolades for their efforts on the local and state level. Their passion for providing safety to all neighborhoods in 92131 is evident in all they have accomplished in 10 years. They are a team who have created opportunities out of a crisis. This group has one thing in mind – you.
Q&A with Jerry Mitchell, Founder and Director of Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council
What is the history behind the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council?
Can you provide a snapshot of the devastation that occurred?
312 homes were totally destroyed and another 300 to 400 damaged. Thousands of trees were also destroyed in our open spaces and many are still visible along Pomerado Road. However, the eucalyptus trees will spout again if not treated – creating another significant fire hazard for our children.
The 5,300-acre 92131 community has 12,000 households and roughly 32,000 people. The fire department classifies about 60 percent of the homes as “very high-risk structures.” Explain.
Prior to the Cedar Fire, the City of San Diego building codes did not recognize wildfire hazards. These included shake roofs, open eaves, single pane windows, unscreened vents and so forth. Newer homes, and especially those replacing fire damaged and destroyed homes, now comply with new fire-safe codes. However, many homes are still at high risk of ignition by flying embers so common in wildfires within eucalyptus dominated areas.
In 2005, the Scripps Ranch Community Fire Safe Alliance was formed. Tell us about this charter, and the goals and strategies the Alliance established.
In November 2003 the US government passed the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003”. Among other things, it stated that to be eligible for government grants for reducing [pullquote align=”right”]“If we want to live in a wooded area like this, and we wish to have fire protective defensible space between our homes and these open spaces – we must assume the ultimate responsibility ourselves.”
~ Jerry Mitchell, Founder & Director, Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council[/pullquote]fire hazards, organizations had to complete a “Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP)”. That plan was to include, among other things, a charter for formal collaboration of all the forestry and firefighting organizations in the area. By late 2004, California was attempting to implement the provisions of the act, and we were the first in the state to submit a comprehensive CWPP, and the first to form the required alliance. The Alliance was the first of its kind and it gave the participants the opportunity to express publicly their dedication to preventing future wildfire disasters like the Cedar Fire. The one-on-ones that occurred later, and the inside track that we achieved in getting grant funding, made it a very worthwhile exercise.
Since forming the Council and the Alliance, what have you accomplished?
- Provided code compliant fire breaks for 23 neighborhoods – 1,220 homes
- Authored over 100 SRCA Newsletter articles
- Introduced the use of goats for brush abatement within the city
- Assisted in writing the city ordinance for brush management with goats
- Initiated scientific fire behavior and biological impact studies that resulted in the San Diego Fire Department’s special authorization to increase the normal 100-foot fir break to 200-feet along the three-mile Scripps Ranch wildland/urban interface
- Opened six overgrown hiking trails within 92131
- Mentored five startup fire safe councils within the County
- Conducted three fire safety symposiums
- Removed 45 dead and dangerous monster trees from the five-acre Giant Grove park area
- Worked with the City to update and expand the Brush Management Ordinance 142.0412
- Answered an average of four neighbor inquiries per month for 10 years
- Cleaned dressed up two major 92131 intersections
- Replaced 125 dead, dying and dangerous eucalyptus trees along 92131 roadways in a joint program with the City Arborist and “People For Trees”, a 501(c)3 organization
- Completed the state’s first Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and the first ground level Community Fire Safe Alliance – providing a model for other FSC’s statewide
- Initiated a program to provide 92131 with an evacuation plan for future emergencies
Tell us about the goat project and how goats are a proven method of creating firebreaks.
UC Davis has studied and fostered the use of goats for brush abatement since the year 2000. We were the first to use goats within the City of San Diego – in the same area where the 2003 Cedar Fire had swept into the South Pomerado residential area of 600 plus homes. Two-hundred seventy homes were destroyed and twice as many significantly damaged. By the end of 2004, hundreds of new (replacement) homes were nearing completion, and the citizens were deeply concerned about the wildfire fuel regrowth adjacent to their new homes. We helped four community leaders form a neighborhood chapter of the FSC and collected $200 per home from 180 homes to kick-off the goat project. Three additional neighborhoods joined in and giving us a 65-acre project. We conducted a scientific Fire Behavior Analysis, a Biological Impact Study and a lot of coordination with several City Departments to get the final permits. The project was difficult, presented some significant problems to solve and was an unqualified success.
Advantages of goats for brush abatement:
- Less expensive. One-third to one half the cost of human crews.
- Steep slopes are not a problem
- The goats show up for work every day
- No Social Security, unemployment benefits, issues with wages
- No hauling cut vegetation up hillsides and then to landfills
There are disadvantages too, but on balance the goats work better in many circumstances. All the affected Homeowner Associations have maintained the 200-foot firebreak to this day.
You have formed 23 neighborhood chapters and produced defensible firebreak zones for 1,220 homes. What is involved with each chapter?
- Finding one or more concerned community leaders to take the lead on the project
- Holding one (or more) neighborhood meetings to describe the project
- Conducting a terrain and vegetation study to estimate the scope, fuel density, and cost of the project
- Drawing maps of the treatment area, including the homes that will directly benefit from the project
- Initiating a fundraising drive within the neighborhood. Typically $200 – $300 per home
- Getting the necessary Right of Entry permits from the City
- Scheduling and signing a contract with our brush clearance contractor
- Establishing direct contact with all homeowners who will be directly in contact with the brush abatement areas.
- Conducting daily monitoring of the progress of the CCC crews while on-site
- Training CCC crews in community relations while on the job
- Photo monitoring of each program for use by funding agencies in justifying the grant expenditures
- Submitting quarterly progress reports to the CA Fire Safe Council, who coordinates all Federal Brush Management Grant programs within the state
How do you feel the community is prepared should another fire enter the community?
- We have a significant reduction in wildfire fuel in our canyons and open spaces.
- We have a well maintained 200-foot fire break along our wildland/urban interface.
- Our homes are significantly improved. There are very few wood roofs and wood sided homes remaining. More eaves are blocked, vents are screened and landscaping is fire wise.
- Most homeowner associations have adopted adequate brush management programs.
- The City is actively maintaining over a thousand acres of firebreaks for our homes with treatments at three-year intervals.
- Our fire station is better equipped and better trained.
- Our citizens are more aware of the potential dangers of living within dense untreated woodlands.
- Our City ordinances are vastly improved and provide specific brush and woodland management guidelines to provide wildfire protection.
- Since the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, the City media outlets have done a very good job of keeping our residents aware of the wildfire danger we live within Southern California.
What can the community improve upon to ensure safety in the case of a fire?
During both the Cedar and Witch Creek Fires, the evacuations were basically without traffic control, and many residents sat for hours in their cars trying to escape. Furthermore, most residents lacked any significant pre-planning. We feel we can improve this situation by preparing an evacuation plan that provides residents with guidance in planning for emergencies, and the first responder teams with some information and traffic control recommendations.
Through donations from community citizens, businesses and grants. Our latest grant was from SDG&E. We also hold an annual “Play to Protect” golf tournament in October.
Are you in need of volunteers?
We meet bi-monthly at Karen Herreros’ home. We have no “membership” program, but can always use volunteers.
Describe the Scripps Ranch Community in relation to how prepared they were in the past, are currently, and how they will be in the future.
As a community, Scripps Ranch was unprepared before the Cedar Fire. As a general rule, SRCA fought to preserve the “Country Living” image and the eucalyptus woodlands surrounding our homes. Residents are more knowledgeable now about the extreme danger presented by unattended eucalyptus groves. There are still pockets of dense fire fuel in the ranch, but overall the community is much safer than before.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
The City now has a good brush management program, largely funded by FEMA grants. However, this can, and probably will, end eventually. The reality is that if we want to preserve our “Country Living” image, and also live in safety, it is incumbent upon the residents to maintain the safety of our homes. This may cost a small annual investment for brush management, but it is worth it.