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The Test of Fire
December 2007

By Bettina Experton

In the evening of Monday, October 22, Del Mar was just a few hot embers away from a major disaster. On board one of the Del Mar Lifeguard trucks, our new City Manager drove only two miles east of Del Mar to see burning homes in Fairbanks Ranch. With Santa Ana winds still blowing, it was time for her to issue a mandatory evacuation of homes surrounding Crest Canyon, directly in the path of the moving fire, and homes in the wooded hills where finger canyons are natural fire conduits through the town.

From advisory to mandatory evacuation orders, our Lifeguards and City officials were there to respond to the call of duty, and with our heroic firefighters on the scene; all of them passed the 'test of fire' with flying colors to protect our lives. But as ordinary citizens, did we pass the 'test' in doing our share to safeguard our homes? Unfortunately NOT, if we look at the fire-fuel-loaded state of our backyards: dry shrubs, dead and broken tree branches touching or perching over roofs, dense and continuous tree canopies, etc.

Indeed, the Del Mar urban forest, principally comprised of trees growing on private properties needs immediate attention, and the call to action falls mostly upon us. Further, the proper maintenance of our yards to avoid fire hazards is the law of the town, specifically Municipal Code Chapter 11.12.

But should we wait for the City to enforce the law or call for further action, when our civic duty should tell us that beyond the protection of our homes, we cannot put in danger our neighbors, firefighters and the entire community because of our negligence.

The Santa Ana season, and the danger of fire, are still upon us, and we should not delay taking action. Practical fire protection guidelines can be found on the city's web site in the Del Mar Public Tree Policy Manual*, such as:

Keeping trees healthy, pruned, and with lowest branches at least 6' to 10' from the ground;

Breaking up solid areas of non-fire resistant vegetation which create fire-ladders (with a 10' separation when possible); properties adjacent to slopes over 30% needing additional vegetation clearing and thinning away from structures;

Replacing fire-hazardous trees (check the City's Discouraged Tree List*) by esthetically equivalent but fire-retardant species (see the City's Recommended Tree List*).

Lastly, let's all support our City officials to engage in courageous but necessary efforts to strengthen our fire-prevention policies and infrastructures, both locally and regionally by:

Enforcing existing laws, and updating the municipal code when needed (i.e., to facilitate removal of fire-hazardous trees);

Reaching out to neighboring San Diego for a permanent fix to the tinder box of Crest Canyon. As once-a-year brush clearing will not do, why not turn Crest Canyon into a "Fire Safe Demonstration Garden" or park as called for in the City's Urban Forest Management and Fire Safety Strategic Plan*;

Investing in the required fire-protection infrastructure (buildings and personnel), for the town and the region. It is time for all of us to pay the right price to stay alive in paradise. San Diego County's current firefighter per capita ratio, one of the lowest in the country (by a factor of 10!) will not do. 

Once more, Del Mar was miraculously spared from ferocious wildfires, but our wealthy, educated and politically engaged community owes the entire region and beyond to be a model of civic responsibility, political leadership and foresight. This is the only way... and it is the Del Mar way!


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