San Diego builds itself into danger

254,400 housing units in brushy, steep, and hard to reach places

Harmony Grove Village South. Developer does not want to add two more access roads.
  • Harmony Grove Village South. Developer does not want to add two more access roads.

According to a new report, San Diego is among the five California counties that have the most homes in high fire risk zones. The county has 254,400 housing units in brushy, steep, and hard to reach places. Several projects planned in North County would add thousands more.

San Diego County wildfire hazard map

San Diego County wildfire hazard map

On Friday (August 24), two lawsuits will be filed in an effort to keep 779 of those homes off the planning map. The Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council and co-plaintiffs, the Endangered Habitats League and Cleveland National Forest Foundation, hope to defeat Harmony Grove Village South and Valiano in Eden Valley.

The suits against the county board of supervisors will target the projects' environmental reports and the zoning changes that opened up the area to sprawl. The plaintiffs will be represented by Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger, the largest environmental law firm in California, and the law offices of Abigail Smith.

Public safety is the main concern for the town council, says board chair Jacqueline Arsivaud. Adjacent to the 111-acre Harmony Grove site is a large swath of protected habitat. With 90 percent of wildfires started by human activity, putting more people "in a forever tinderbox" is simply poor planning, she says. The sites, west of Escondido, are in a very high fire hazard zone and the land wasn't zoned for high density. In fact, the 2011 general plan aimed to limit sprawl in the unincorporated areas. But in July, as another record-breaking fire season raged in California, the county board of supervisors voted to allow the developments, part of a bundle of projects approved as a single amendment to the general plan, said to help ease the housing crunch.

The batching of multiple projects is a workaround of the state law that only allows four general plan amendments per year. Another batch of amendments will be heard this fall.

In the process, the local community plan was toppled. Both projects were recommended for denial by the San Dieguito Community Planning Group, of which Arsivaud is a member.

Fire officials have said evacuation, a major concern for residents, can be carried out safely. After the deadly fires in October 2003, county planners came up with several fixes related to building construction, vegetation, roads, water supplies and firefighting. Stronger codes, they say, have paid off. Newer homes are more fire resistant and have a three times better chance of survival.

With more homes designed so fire goes around instead of through them, evacuation isn't always considered the safest option. Instead, people may be advised to “shelter in place," which Arsivaud says could be "highly dangerous" for the many residents whose homes are older "and won't be retrofitted by the developer or the county. Shelter-in-place is a strategy of last resort, not what you build a new community around."

Officials say the plans have been well vetted by experts. Harmony Grove Village South will be the first new housing development in the county that will have to comply with the wildland-urban interface plan, which maps a neighborhood's topography, water supply and potential hazards. It will be served by a new fire station about 1.2 miles away.

But developer RCS Harmony Partners won't comply with one key aspect. The Harmony Grove project's wildfire risk analysis prepared for the fire marshall notes "the applicant has proposed to comply with all county building and fire code requirements with the exception of provision of two routes of access/egress."

While road improvements are on the menu, residents worry that they won't help enough. With no new roads out, they envision a traffic jam. Country Club Drive, the two-lane road through the area, would be shared by current and future residents.

Many wildfire fatalities occur on roads as people try to escape in their cars. In June 2017, for example, after officials in Portugal failed to evacuate villages in time, 64 people were killed by a wildfire, 47 of whom died in their vehicles on a road.

Arsivaud's home in Elfin Forest is about six miles from the sites, "but we all have had to use that same evacuation route in previous emergencies," she says. In the 2014 Cocos fire, a major road to the west "turned into a parking lot from evacuating traffic."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


After each one of the big fires, starting back in 1970, and notably in 2003 and again in 2007, politicians and fire fighters along with the land managers all claimed to have "learned" a great deal. That suggested that they had learned how to mitigate and/or avoid further conflagrations like those years, and also keep the brush fires out of the urban areas. Yet over and over again, just as in Alpine a few weeks ago, a fire breaks out and races along taking out homes, businesses and infrastructure. You keep hearing about "defensible space" around homes, but that usually means what a homeowner can do on his/her own property. It's a good idea, but in a huge, raging and wind-driven fire, it is useless.

What comes up missing most of the time is any concept of defensible space for the whole neighborhood, i.e. the development. So, they put homes right at the edge of the native chaparral and often keep finger canyons full of brush right in among the homes.

Reading descriptions of the Cedar Fire of 2003 and how it raced into several areas, notably Wildcat Canyon, where most of the fatalities occurred, the narrow roads and lack of warning were a deadly combination. There was a description of gridlock at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and San Vicente Road outside the SD Country Estates that kept fleeing residents trapped in their cars. The least that a developer can do is provide plenty of roads for egress in emergencies.

Shelter in place sounds great, but should be only the absolute last resort. Do the people who propose sheltering in place plan to live there and rely on it themselves?

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader