S.D. considers 100-foot buffer around brush

Change along coast would match SB, DM

By Dave Schwab and Laura Petersen

San Diego and Coastal Commission officials are trying to get the city’s brush clearing regulations in line with those in Solana Beach and Del Mar, which already require a 100-foot buffer between structures and open spaces.

Meanwhile Solana Beach officials are also conferring with the coastal commission staff and other stakeholders on a long-term vegetation maintenance plan to protect the sensitive habitat and the nearby homes, said David Ott, fire chief for Del Mar and Solana Beach.

The two cities were the first two in San Diego County to increase to the 100-foot vegetation management zone back in early 2005, Ott said.

“The whole point is to prevent a continuous flame front as you go into residential areas,” Ott said.

Solana Beach, which is bordered on the north by San Elijo Lagoon, did some brush management along the edge of the lagoon in 2005, Ott said.

The 100-foot zone is not completely cleared; there are varying levels of management approaching a structure. There still is vegetation in the closest 35 feet, but it is spread out and more fire resistant.

On Thursday, coastal commissioners considered a plan to bring the coastal zone under the 100-foot banner, which could be a change in the Local Coastal Program. They had been expected to approve the amendment but the matter was considered after press time.

If approved, the coastal rules would also allow for use of one other somewhat unorthodox fire-prevention measure: goat grazing.

“Studies show 100 feet gives you about 80 percent (fire) protection,” said Jerry Mitchell of Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council, one of 50 nonprofit, community-based organizations formed countywide to provide education about fire prevention and safety. “Eighty-five feet won’t give you that much.”

Creating defensible space around homes not only allows firefighters easier access in the event of a blaze, but also decreases the risk of fire to the home itself because vegetation can act as a fuel to a fire.

How safe firebreaks and defensible space are, said Mitchell, depends on a number of factors: wind strength, humidity levels and the temperature of the fire.

He acknowledged it’s impossible to create the perfect firebreak.

“Even 200 feet would not be a perfect break,” he said, adding wildfire flame length is a major determining factor in fire damage. “That last 15 feet of flame length is a lot more dangerous,” he added.

Deborah Lee, district manager for California Coastal Commission San Diego, said a sensitive approach to brush management does not allow for clear-cutting, but rather creates a buffer zone requiring some vegetation cover to be kept retaining the root stock in order to minimize soil erosion.

“The first preference is to remove non-native species or weeds,” said Lee. “It also requires monitoring to try to minimize the invasion of weeds. Once you clear-cut, that’s almost an invitation for non-native, invasive plants to become established. We’re hoping these new regulations will result in better overall management of an area.”

Sometimes goats are used for work in steep or otherwise inaccessible areas. While there are costs savings, their use is sometimes offset by drawbacks like droppings and slower progress.

Solana Beach’s Ott noted that goats were used by the forest service in 1970s to help clear natural areas.

“The problem is that they are pretty indiscriminant in what they east, they don’t know we don’t want the whole thing cleared, so they are not effective in this particular operation.”