READER’S EDITORIAL: SAN DIEGO SUPERVISORS SHOULD JUST SAY NO TO FIRE-TRAP DEVELOPMENTS

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By Peter A. Andersen, PhD, and Daniel H. Silver, MD

Photos by Miriam Raftery:  State Route 94, the primary evacuation route for Proctor Valley and communities from Jamul south to Barrett Junction, has been previously shut down for hours or even days by the Harris Wildfire, flooding, and serious accidents.  A Border Patrol station, casino and high school along the highway (not shown) all add to traffic back-ups and congestion at peak times, drawing frequent complaints from residents in recent years.

May 23, 2019 (Jamul/Proctor Valley) -- Deadly fires scorched California in 2017 and 2018, destroying thousands of homes and killing 44 people in wine country and 86 in Paradise. Emergency warning and evacuation systems failed. People burned in their cars trying to escape the flames. Homes built to new fire-safe building codes burned anyway in the intense heat. Rapidly moving fires overwhelmed safety systems and careful planning.

The County Board of Supervisors will vote in June whether to approve a major housing development in Jamul, a community already ranked in the bottom 1% of hard-to-evacuate locations in the state. What will convince the Board to apply the lessons of the massive northern California fires to local land-use decisions? At what point does willful ignorance of the risks become negligence?

The Otay Ranch Village 14 project in Proctor Valley is a textbook case of building in a place where it makes no sense to build. This proposed project of over a thousand homes is in a zone ranked as “very high” fire threat by CALFIRE, with pockets of “extreme” fire threat. Completely surrounded by wildlands, Proctor Valley burned twice just in the last 15 years. In 2007, the 90,000-acre Harris fire destroyed 548 structures and caused 8 deaths. Fire will come again to Proctor Valley. It’s just a matter of when.

Topography alone makes this proposed development a bad bet. Building homes in high fire threat locations increases the likelihood of new ignitions. The steep terrain surrounding the proposed Village 14 development would allow a fire to spread quickly and inhibit firefighting efforts.

As required, the developer conducted studies related to traffic and fire safety. Unsurprisingly, the developer’s report downplayed obvious dangers and underestimated the likelihood of a fire-related catastrophe.

Conversely, an outside expert traffic engineer found that the developer’s evacuation plans are utterly unrealistic. Village 14 would add thousands of people and their cars to already congested roads, some at the lowest possible traffic rating. The developer analysis also ignored the project’s impacts on the ability of the existing community to evacuate. It assumed roads other than Proctor Valley Road, the primary evacuation route, would be available to current Jamul residents fleeing from flames. But prevailing winds and fire direction could close off other escape routes. During the Camp Fire in Paradise, three of the six major roads out of town had to be closed due to fire conditions. There are just two ways out of Proctor Valley.

Amazingly, the developer’s evacuation analysis assumed that the new residents would be the only people on the road, conveniently forgetting that 6,000 current residents would also need to evacuate! The analysis also ignored existing traffic congestion at high-travel times of day. Alarmingly, it failed to consider that a fire traveling from Jamul toward Village 14 could slow evacuees or block Proctor Valley Road entirely.

According to the traffic engineer, “… The failure to include in the analysis even a single non-project vehicle means that the evacuation time estimates presented in the [Wildland Fire Evacuation Plan] are meaningless, and the analysis provides a misleading indication of project safety in the event of a wildland fire emergency.” 

The mere existence of the Village 14 development increases fire risk for the entire region. According to an expert fire protection engineer, “A fire that ignites within the Project footprint under Santa Ana winds and spreads outside of the 300-foot buffer would be essentially unsuppressed as it travels through continuous fuels and makes a direct hit on Chula Vista potentially destroying hundreds of structures.”  Depending on the wind direction, a fire could quickly spread to Spring Valley, Lemon Grove and even San Diego.

Until the disaster in Paradise, experts believed that staged evacuations would work just fine. We now know that in very high fire risk locations, we can’t rely on even the best-laid plans to protect life and property. Paradise mayor Jody Jones has said that no amount of planning could have prevented the panicked gridlock in her town during the evacuation. It’s time to face what former state CALFIRE director Ken Pimlott has stated: “We will never be able to stop these 60-mile-an-hour, wind-driven, intense fires that move the length of a football field in a minute… We just can’t build homes in these high-risk areas anymore.”

Proctor Valley, surrounded by flammable wildlands, is the absolute wrong place to develop. It’s the poster child for dangerous development. It’s time for our elected officials to learn from recent tragedies rather than set the stage for new tragedies in San Diego.

Peter Andersen is the Chairperson of Sierra Club San Diego. He lives in Jamul. Daniel Silver is the Executive Director of the Endangered Habitats League.

The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.