Heatland Fire & Rescue: Special Report

WARNING: East County Ripe For Wild Fires

LA MESA -- As hundreds of firefighters fought blazes in North County earlier this month -- his own staff and engines among them -- Rick Sitta, chief of Heartland Fire & Rescue, watched closely.

Firefighters struggled to contain flames that whipped up out of overgrown canyons and gullies, shooting embers into the air and threatening large, expensive homes. Even with well-manicured, cleared areas and often golf courses around many of these homes, firefighters couldn't save them all.

On this past Saturday, even with a cooling marine layer wafting through and temperatures back to normal, Sitta was out on his own Mt. Helix home doing what he thinks all East County homeowners should be doing right now.

He was clearing out rain gutters where flying embers find fuel. He was talking about clearing dead brush  from around East County homes and, above all, he was hoping residents in East County realize what happened to our north carried a clear warning: Prepare now or risk a far worse outcome when the real East County fire season begins in the summer and fall.

Surprisingly, Sitta said his own neighborhood, the foothills and slopes of Mt. Helix, could be ground zero for destructive fires this year. He quickly lists a number of conditions -- overgrown slopes, parcels with lots of dead or dying vegetation, homes where mulch is layered right up to foundations -- that he sees on virtually every street in La Mesa.

And literally above all, Sitta fears the Mexican fan palms. San Diegans' love affair with the tall palms is only exceeded by their unwillingness to keep these trees clean. The years of dead palm fronds that hang down from trees sometimes forty and fifty feet high are like wicks waiting for a match.

"They are really like Roman torches when a fire happens,'' Sitta said. "They cascade embers across wide areas when the wind blows.''

Sitta said a recent tour of the narrow, winding streets of Mt. Helix and other East County areas had fire experts comparing conditions to the now infamous Oakland Hills neighborhoods where hundreds of homes burned. The very elements that residents love about neighborhoods like Mt. Helix -- the seclusion, the view from hillside homes, the deep vegetation that grants such privacy -- also make the area extremely vulnerable, particularly in a year when drought has dried out so much fuel across the region.

"Residents like to point to Interstates and think they are natural fire breaks,'' Sitta said. "Then can slow down a fire, but in reality, fires travel through the air, not along the ground. And what about a fire that starts right on the hillsides themselves? We have to take the time to prepare now.''

Sitta cited a house fire that occurred last year just off Bancroft Drive near the 125. The house was easily extinguished, but within minutes embers had fanned out on the wind south and east from the home and had unkempt palm trees spreading the fire up Mt. Helix's slope. "We had to dispatch units several blocks south and east to keep it under control.''

Sitta said his fire fighters are starting their inspections to identify unsafe conditions, but he said with the drought, there are challenges virtually everywhere you look now.

And Sitta acknowledges that many East County neighborhoods are not as well prepared as the North County areas where golf courses and more manicured neighborhoods gave firefighters more help in their efforts to save homes.

Further, the nature of the roads through many East County areas -- including Mt. Helix -- are far more challenging for large fire engines to negotiate.

"There are many places where you will have to think carefully about sending large engines into once fire starts moving up the slopes,'' Sitta said.

Sitta is also working with Caltrans to make sure highway landscaping doesn't allow tossed cigarettes or sparks from passing cars to find easy fuels.

"We have a lot of fires that start along the very highways people think of as fire breaks,'' he said.

If all this is unnerving as the hotter summer and fall loom, Sitta acknowledges he shares your concern. His suggestions to start:

  •  Get your palms cleaned up to the live fronds on top.
  •  Keep the mulch away from your foundation. Embers have been known to smolder in such places for hours before starting a home ablaze.
  •  Remove all dead or dying brush from around your home.
  •  Clean out your rain gutters now.
  •  Trim the bottom five feet of all your trees to make certain flames can't "ladder up" into fuller branches.

Wildfires are to California what hurricanes are to the Gulf Coast. You know they are coming at some point, all you can do is prepare so that you give your home the best chance to survive.

Words to the wise.

Gina Garcia is a Realtor (CalBRE #01704251) and is publisher of LaMesaToday.com. To contact her, e-mail Gina@GinaGarcia.net or call (619) 818-6982.

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Comment by Batman on May 28, 2014 at 10:25am

Ah, we're finally talking about fuel management. Trimming and clearing combustibles from your property is a very good idea and fire departments have always had the authority to force property owners to clear wild vegetation. But most of the fuel problem is on public land. How do we force our local, state and federal governments to manage their end of the deal?

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