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Developers Seek Permission to Build in Severe Wildfire Risk Areas

Several of the large projects asking for exemptions from the county’s general plan are either entirely or partially located in areas the state classifies as “very high risk” for wildfires.

Along Country Club Drive in Eden Valley there’s a barren property peppered with charred tree trunks. It’s a visual reminder of last year’s Cocos Fire.

Eden Valley is located at the very western edge of Escondido, and County Club Drive – a narrow, two-lane, tree-lined road – is the only way in and out for the area’s 80-some residents.

Integral Communities is trying to build 326 homes in place of those charred trees. The site of the developer’s Valiano project was almost entirely engulfed in flames last year. The Cocos Fire burned through it, destroying a total of 40 homes countywide at a cost of $6 million.

Integral’s project doesn’t fit within the county’s general plan for long-term growth, approved just four years ago. Its approval rests on an amendment to the general plan the county spent 13 years and $18.2 million rewriting.

It’s one of several large projects proposed in San Diego County’s rural, fire-prone areas.

Experts agree: Dropping isolated housing projects in the middle of backcountry areas increases wildfire risk.

“With these development patterns, you’re not only increasing the chance for fire to happen, but you’re increasing the chance that homes will burn,” said Alexandra Syphard, an ecologist at the Conservation Biology Institute.

A 2013 study from the U.S. Geological Survey she worked on found sprawling housing developments away from existing development have led to more houses lost to fire in Southern California.

New housing belongs near existing housing, the study found.

“I think the big issue is when houses are placed in the middle of wildland area,” said Jon Keeley, another of the study’s authors. “That is something that requires a lot more planning effort. There is the probability that those houses are going to get burned up in a fire.”

San Diego County officials will soon be asked to approve a handful of projects that fit the bill. Five projects in particular pose a true challenge. They’re either entirely or partially located in areas the state classifies as “very high risk” for wildfires.

Lilac Hills Ranch would put 1,700 homes on 600 acres of rolling hills in Valley Center. Harmony Grove South would add 463 homes around the corner from Valiano. Another Harmony Grove project of 700 homes is already under construction. Newland Sierra, between Vista and Valley Center, would bring another 2,100 homes. Warner Ranch, near Pala, proposes another 780 homes.

The large projects all require amendments to the county’s general plan.

Altogether, the proposed projects highlight a fundamental reality of backcountry development: The county is a wick, and wicks burn. Officials can manage it, but they’ll never erase the risk.

“Some people look at this as beautiful open space,” said Jacqueline Arsivaud-Benjamin, a local resident and board member of the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council. “Some of them look at it as a tinderbox.”

Before the projects go to the Board of Supervisors for a vote, they’ll each need to minimize their fire risk with substantial investments. Valiano, for instance, will need to build two new roads leading out of the property to help with evacuation. Harmony Grove Village has to build a new fire station. Developers for Lilac Hills Ranch eventually need to figure out how fire crews can reach homes in the project’s furthest reaches within required timelines – though early phases of the project can get started before they find a solution.

The most common needs for North County projects, according to the San Diego County Fire Authority, mostly deal with adequate roads into and out of the projects.

That was true of the Cocos Fire, during which traffic backed up in an hour-and-a-half wait on Country Club Drive, according to some accounts, as residents tried to evacuate.

The Cocos Fire created the same issue in another nearby development, San Elijo Hills, near San Marcos. The sole San Elijo Road led to all three exits out of the development and became gridlocked as thousands of residents tried to flee. Randy Goodson, an executive with Accretive – the developer behind Lilac Hills Ranch – was also a lead developer for San Elijo Hills.

Officials hope to decrease the chances these things happen by forcing developments to make major investments as a condition of approval. And those forced investments end up introducing a trade-off, said Michael Lowry, Escondido’s fire chief.

“The threat of wildfire decreases, but because there are more people, the potential for structure fires and loss of life increase,” Lowry said.

Max Moritz, a UC Berkeley fire ecologist, said the relationship between wildfire and new development looks like a bell curve. With the first few projects in undeveloped areas, fire risk jumps exponentially. But if development continues, eliminating all of the flammable vegetation and bringing new firefighting resources to the area, the risk reaches a peak and eventually plummets.

That is, the undeveloped area presents a major fire risk until it ceases to be an undeveloped area.

But that might never happen for the areas eyed by developers in North County, Syphard said.

That’s because many are surrounded by legally protected wetland areas. Replacing all the flammable vegetation with stucco homes and strip malls might not even be an option.

“You’ll end up having a more fire-prone landscape that will put more people at risk for the foreseeable future,” she said.

“When you zoom out and look at the big picture, you conclude that the way we’re developing is the problem,” Moritz said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of homes destroyed in the Cocos Fire.

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