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By Miriam Raftery

February 26, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – Readers across East County have sent photos and video of a large controlled burn yesterday in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, voicing outrage over the burning of habitat including mature trees, given than 99% of the pine trees in the park burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Questions have also been raised over why the burn was allowed in windy conditions, why a helicopters was dispatched to use water from Lake Cuyamaca on a controlled burn, and why more notice was not provided to the public and the press that a major controlled burn was underway by State Parks in conjunction with Cal Fire.

A second controlled burn was also occurring at Wooded Hill in Cleveland National Forest near Mt. Laguna under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service.  

What appeared to be two headers on a large fire sent large plumes of smoke across much of East County, prompting many panicked calls and e-mails to media as well as rumors that the burn had jumped out of control—a fear for area residents after last year’s San Felipe fire scorched nearly 2,800 acres after a Cal Fire controlled burn escaped containment lines.

Cal Fire spokesman Kendall Bortisser confirmed to ECM, “It did not get out of control.”  He added that the plan was to burn 97 acres and that as of late yesterday, the burn was 80 percent completed. He said such burns are scheduled far in advance and indicated that he sent a Tweet out yesterday morning. 

Asked about reports and photos of mature trees including pines burning, he referred us to the California State Parks service.  A call to Terry Gerson has not yet been returned, however ECM will publish a follow up once a response is received.

Rumors of an out of control burn began circulating after a Ramona newspaper published a post headlined “Cal Fire Reports `Escaped Burn.’  A correction was later published indicated Cal Fire staetd that “minor” spots in grasses outside the control lines had occurred but had been halted.  Scanner traffic and posts on a wildland firefighter blog also indicated heavy resources had been dispatched including aerial support and that the burn had jumped containment lines, adding to the confusion.

Even if the burn stayed essentially within containment lines, however, there are still serious questions raised over the choice of location(s) and timing, sparking outrage among  many ECM readers.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is being helped along by torching anything that has survived the drought and the previous fires,” wrote Bob Chaplin in an e- mail to ECM. “I am a Julian resident who cannot understand why chipping cannot take place rather than torching.” 

Chaplin voiced concern for loss of habitat for ground nesting birds, lizards, insects, and milkweed for Monarch butterflies, potentially, with so many large controlled burns in our region.  “Is Cal Fire not aware of the severe condition the native birds are finding now with no plant bloom or insects?  They need to talk to some of the folks at the San Diego Natural History Museum,” Chaplin suggested.  “It is very sad to see this policy of burning all things…In a few more years, it will all be dust with no native ground cover, no native plants, bees or animals. Without water nothing will grow back.”

He also voiced concerns over the low level of water at Cuyamaca, a fact that photos published last week in ECM confirm.  Yet a State Parks representative informed ECM reporter Nadin Abbott yesterday during the burn that helicopter service was activated at Lake Cuyamaca and would be used to put the fire out.

Jean Kaiwi voiced outrage over the burn in her e-mail to ECM and also leveled criticism against Cal Fire’s stepped-up policy of burning vast tracts of public lands. 

“Cal Fire is a reckless and backward looking agency,” she werote. “It breaks my heart that they can get anywhere near Cuyamaca.”

Craig Maxwell, a former La Mesa mayoral candidate and owner of Maxwell’s House of Books, is an avid hiker who was in Cuyamaca when the burn occurred. “If I’d been any closer, the hair on my arms would’ve burned,” wrote Maxwell, who sent disturbing photos showing the forest burning.

While some images showed a ghost forest of trees dead from past fires, others showed what appeared to be young, healthy pine trees amid the flames. He also reports 15 foot high saplings planted after the Cedar Fire were destroyed in this burn. (See photo, top of story)

“Many of the trees burning were mature oaks, pines and cedars that had survived the Cedar fire,” said Maxwell, who indicated he aims to file public records requests to get more details on the burn.

A representative from a local tribe sent photos showing a large header of smoke. The individual, who asked not to be named, wanted to know who ordered a burn before winter rains, amid a drought. He was also angered at the lack of adequate advance notification to the public, tribes, and media. 

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Julie Salmon also has questions she wants answered.  “It is beyond me why they would do such a big burn and not warn people,” she told ECM, “and why they would be doing it with all our drought issues right now, and why the hell don’t they have some system in place where we can look to see info on whether smoke is a control burn or not.”

East County Magazine has asked the State Parks Service to inform us next time it plans a controlled burn so that we can notify subscribers to our Viejas Wildfire & Alerts.  We have also asked Cal Fire to provide earlier advance notice of future burns.

Several readers said they observed gusty winds and wanted to know why the burn wasn’t cancelled.  Salmons said she had a similar concern on February 20, an announced permissible burn day above 3000 feet. “I am at 3600 feet and this is how it was blowing outside ALL day,” she said of a video she forwarded to ECM. “I heard on the scanner on the morning report that it was a permissible burn day. I went out and did a little video of the wind blowing my trees and churning my windmill just in case some yahoo started a fire. What are they thinking lately?”



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Wow, all those degrees in Forest Science and all those decades in experience in Cal Fire and the Forest Service and here they go doing things wrong again. I guess with all these look out your back door citizen fire science experts we don't need Cal Fire? Maybe we can just close them down and use the money to build our Governors "Brown Streak" train from nowhere to nowhere. I THINK EVERYONE IN CALIFORNIA HAS GONE COMPLETELY NUTS!

Let the record show--and it

Let the record show--and it abundantly does-that few things are less reliable than government "experts" and "authorities." I remember when the so-called fire control wiz kids incinerated nearly one-third of Yellowstone park in 1988. Naw,...too often where "experts" reign, common sense goes out the window.

Let the record show

Not one single person in this blog has any wildfire experience. Craig, I would not let you light my cigarette let alone let you tell anyone how to do a controlled burn!

Safety precautions? That is a

Safety precautions? That is a good question. As Miriam notes, I was as close to the fire as one could possibly be without flame-retardant clothing. If I'd had a bag of marshmallows and a (very) long stick I'd have had a roast.


What precautions are taken in a controlled burn area in regards to the safety of recreational users? What is the plan if a controlled burn becomes uncontrolled in regards to recreational users?


Good question. A friend likes to go hiking off the trails. A bushwacker.

Fire, post fire, etc.

Fire is kinda a hot topic here, I met a lady at Cuyamaca Lake a week ago. While talking about the dry conditions she said her house burned during the Cedar fire. That re-ignited a lot of memories of friends and family who lost their homes and "stuff". My son's friend Ryan stayed at my place for a week until his family could find a place to live. Forests after a fire. Warning, PDF.

Remember where we live

I have to agree with the comments of JBiscuiluz, and John Elliot. Remember where we live, whether we like it or not, fire IS a major part of this ecosystem that we have chosen to live in. These hills have burned for centurys, fire belongs here, we don't! Mr. Elliot is right on the money, I'll take this "perscribed" burn in February over a true "wildfire" in October any day! If burns like this had been done in the years before the Cedar fire to reduce the fuel load in the State park, Cuyamaca would not have been as devastated as it was! A couple of nits: This was a State Park burn, (and they did a good job!) CalFire was an assisting agency. (they have more fire trucks!) Burning before a rainstorm is the perfect time to do so, and preferred by resource managers, yes, excess runoff is one of the few downsides. Cutting and chipping has a HUGE cost in dollars per treated acre. Tax increase anyone? Fire belongs here, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

But Redman, if these "fires

But Redman, if these "fires belong here and we don't," then why are we purposely setting and extinguishing them? What business do we have in interfering on any level? Why not just wait for Mother Nature to take her course and, when the fires begin (by lightening, or whatever other natural cause) let them take their course? One thing's for sure, there was nothing natural about the recent blaze on Cuyamaca Peak. It was part of a very conscious, and I suspect, misguided policy.

Questions: If the "thick,

Questions: If the "thick, chocking plants" that emerged after the Cedar Fire were able to do so after a conflagration of that intensity, what's to prevent them from regrowing after far less severe planned burns? I can understand wanting to clear out the "weeds" (i.e., unwanted undergrowth) but isn't there something wrong with with an indiscriminate burn that kills or drastically retards the growth of everything--older trees, sapling conifers and deciduous root growth that, in some cases had reached 10-12ft? Sheriff helicopters haven't been a part of the other recent, controlled burns I've seen. Why were they needed for this one? And, yes, wintertime planned burns are a regular event. But winters are normally winter-like with rain, snow and other flame dampening elements. Again, ours has practically been an extended summer, dry to an unprecedented degree. Was it really worth the risk?

Controled Burn

I used to hike in the park back in 07-10. The amount dead and down trees from the Cedar fire is huge. The thick, chocking plants that took over the forest after that fire are chocking the forest out and need to be burned. Chipping wasn't working fast enough for them and took alot of man hours to clear small areas. The best way to save the forest is to have small controlled burns on our terms and not on Mother Natures terms. This will allow the planting of new trees this winter, like they have in previous years. True we are in a drought condition, but what do you think it would look like if there is a wild fire this summer and the heavy fuels are still there. Fire is a natural part of the echo system and we tend to stop it because we don't want to see the devastation it brings. The forest needs this, it's a good thing if done right. Second, understand that in the park, Cal Fire supports the State Park Fire guy and his crew setting this up. It's winter time, even if it doesn't feel like it. There is always controlled burns during the winter, nothing new to see there.

Control Burn

I'm a little surprised at some of the comments and general tone of this article. I felt that the timing for this controlled burn was just about perfect, given the fuel moisture levels, slight westerly winds and a rain front moving into the area. Our communities are now safer, the habitats enhanced and costs were minimal. Good job, Cal Fire and Forest Service. If I was to offer any suggestions it would be why didn't they include several more areas for these burns? Its been over 10 years since the Cedar fire and fuel load levels are increasing. Its not an issue of if these areas are going to burn but when will they burn. I'll take this controlled burn management over fuel load build up with a surprise wildfire any day.

Thanks, Miriam. Their denial

Thanks, Miriam. Their denial contradicts what I was told by the ranger I spoke with. Even he admitted that the fire had "burned an extra couple of acres." My question: why was this undertaken in such dry conditions--we are in the midst of a record setting drought--on a breezy day? It was a "controlled burn," after all, that, under similar conditions went awry near the San Felipe wash and wound up charring half of Volcan mountain. The CalFire website is red with warnings about the East County's hazardous fire conditions. Why would they take such a gamble with such a vulnerable area that's struggled so hard to rebound after the catastrophic Cedar Fire?

Heads on a Pike?

Up to FIVE INCHES OF RAIN forecast for the mountains, rainfall from thunderstorms varies from light in some places to over one inch per hour a short distance away. What will the runoff in these burn areas do to the forest land? Names and contact info, please. Tom