Environment Report: County Fire Marshal Is at the Center of a Political Firestorm Over New Development - Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Environment Report: County Fire Marshal Is at the Center of a Political Firestorm Over New Development

A power company files for bankruptcy citing climate change, a water-starved farmer considers his future and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news. 

Fire crews attempt to contain a wildfire in 2007. / Photo by Rob Davis

San Diego knows from terrible experience the risk of wildfires.

The 1970 Laguna Fire — which burned across 175,000 acres of San Diego County, killed five people and took out 380 structures — remains one of the largest and deadliest in California history. Even more devastating fires, like the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Fire, followed.

Even those have been dwarfed by larger and more destructive fires elsewhere in the state, including November’s Camp Fire that killed 86 people and burned nearly 19,000 structures in Butte County.

The potential liability from that fire has forced Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest power company, to file for bankruptcy.

In San Diego, the task of preventing and fighting future fires falls largely on Tony Mecham, the local Cal Fire unit chief who also oversees the county’s fire authority, which makes him the county’s fire marshal. He oversees about 550 employees.

He started his career in Fallbrook as a seasonal employee and spent the first 12 years of his career here, then went to Riverside to 17 years and came back as chief in 2014.

While he cautions that any part of the county can burn, his biggest worry is a big swath of land: “Everything south of Interstate 8.”

That area, which includes the town of Alpine, hasn’t really burned since the Laguna Fire, meaning it’s ripe for a blaze.

Because Mecham and his staff need to sign off on new development, he’s also at the center of a major fight over land use in rural areas.

Opponents of several new major developments have said building in fire-prone areas makes no sense and have urged the county to reject developments in areas considered likely to burn. Developers have countered that adding new homes in fire-prone areas could make those areas safer because they will have to follow new building codes and could act as fire breaks that protect older homes nearby.

In mid-December, the outgoing director of Cal Fire suggested policy changes that don’t allow building in high-risk areas.

In an early December interview, Mecham largely shied away from those policy debates. “I never want to be in the position of recommending approval of a development that is ever going to put people at risk, and I think that’s been lost,” he said.

But he said his job is mostly to follow a black-and-white process about whether a project meets the county fire code, which has been approved by the state.

“We’re going to focus on fire and from a public safety standpoint, we’re going to make the best recommendations that we can, based on the tools and analysis we have available today,” he said.

Some of those tools are not ideal. For instance, there is no clear formula for calculating evacuation times.

He drew a contrast between older homes and newer homes, which are being built in ways that make their roofs, attics and siding all less combustible. But he cautioned that homeowners need to take other measures to protect their property, like clearing space around wood piles and fire-prone trees and brush.

Wildland firefighters are gradually taking the position that they will not attempt to save empty homes that homeowners haven’t protected with so-called “defensible space.”

“We came to the realization, look our firefighters’ lives are as important as any civilian life,” Mecham said. “So if there is life threatened — like there was in the Camp Fire — our folks are going to extreme measures. But if there is not a civilian life threat, why are we putting ourselves out there? You know, a home can be rebuilt.”

PG&E’s Bankruptcy: Climate-Caused?

Pacific Gas & Electric’s bankruptcy — its second in 20 years — was prompted by the wildfire liability it faces.

This has led to something of a philosophical debate over the cause of the company’s problems. The company has leaned, in part, on the explanation that a changing climate is creating more extreme weather, but there is other evidence that suggests the company may be uniquely ill-prepared for the change.

While wildfire risk is obviously not unique to the company, it may have particular problems maintaining equipment and trimming near power lines across the vast stretches of Northern California that it serves. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that PG&E’s equipment has led to 1,500 fires in the past few years.

Back in November, CALmatters put together an explainer on what’s likely to happen once the company files for bankruptcy.

It’ll also be interesting to see if and how California ends up helping to bail out the utility, something the state had to do following the energy crisis two decades ago, when PG&E first declared bankruptcy. A few months ago, I looked at the Department of Water Resources’ role in the last utility bailout after San Diego Gas & Electric said it wanted to stop buying energy and focus on its infrastructure business.

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