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Are Green-and-Fire-Fuel-Lean Efforts Coming Our Way?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe (KFS)

Kensington’s fire safe council will share researched answers to inquiries from community members here – if you send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures appreciated! 

Here’s a follow-up to previous Firey Questions:

Q #1.  When is the city going to trim our canyons?

Come pose that question to Deputy Chief Marshal Anthon Tosca, Senior Code Compliance Supervisor Marci Garcia plus other representatives from the Parks and Recreation Open Space Division, and also from the Fire Rescue Department, when they join us for a presentation at Kensington Community Church, Wednesday, June 12th at 6:30 PM, in Lander Hall. 

Learn about vegetation thinning on certain city property adjacent to privately-owned lots, the “Ember Resistant Zone,” real estate defensible space inspections and other local wildfire prevention efforts.  Please let us know if you’re coming so we can be sure to have enough chairs.  RSVP at kensingtonfiresafe.org.

Q #2.  Can I find out how fire safe my house really is?

A: Yes!  Check out the FREE home assessment program being offered by the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County.   The assessments include inspecting your house and property to determine vulnerabilities to potential flying embers in the event of a wildfire, as well as other fire dangers.  Staff conducting the 30-to-45-minute, confidential assessment will make recommendations for improvements to harden your home against potential fires and provide other resources.

Two program phases are being rolled out by geographic zones.   The first phase is the home assessments.  For Kensington/Zone 6 the second round will take place August 5th to the 7th.  They already completed about half a dozen in our area during the first March round.

There’s a second “service” phase when chipping and defensible space efforts are available to homeowners in high-risk areas that have physical, economic, or other barriers to doing the work themselves.    These services will be available August 12th to 16th  for our area.  For more details, go to https://firesafesdcounty.org/hap/

This program is made possible by funding from CAL FIRE, through the California Fire Safe Council’s Defensible Space Assistance Grant Program.

Q#3: When is the next KFS Dumpathon?

A:  Well, not this Spring as originally planned. We’ve been told that we should not hold this fuel-thinning support during the March through August gnatcatcher breeding season. We started holding late Spring events several years ago, based on resident’s feedback on the best time for trimming excess brush, after learning of a County and State agreement to allow fire fuel reduction efforts during this season.  However, we were recently informed that the City’s Municipal Code restricting this activity overrides this agreement.  So, our Spring Dumpathon was canceled.

Brush management crews at work

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Is the California “FAIR Plan” Fair?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe (KFS)

Kensington’s fire safe council will share researched answers to inquiries from community members in this column.  Send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures appreciated! 

Q:  Over a recent delicious lunch at Clem’s Station on Monroe,  we talked with Tony – manager, bartender, waiter, and part of the owing family – about problems residents are having getting, keeping, or affording homeowner insurance. He asked how the California FAIR Plan worked.

A:  Good timing, Tony.  We recently sat in on a conference call that gave us some insights into the  “Fair Access to Insurance Requirements” program, aka the California FAIR Plan (CFP).

First of all, it’s not a government entity, as a lot of folks think.  Although established by a California statue in 1968, CFP is run by a consortium of California property and casualty insurers. They’re required to participate if they want to do business here, and they share in the plan’s overhead, profits and most significantly – losses, in direct proportion to their market share in our state. (1)  

So that means the bigger their sales, the greater their CFP plan liabilities, on top of whatever they’re paying out for their own insured. Is it any wonder you may find it hard to get a policy with the biggest insurers like State Farm, The Hartford and USAA?

FAIR plans, which exist in 26 states, weren’t intended for long term coverage, but rather as a temporary safety net until traditional insurance could be secured. In other words, it’s the insurance of last resort when no other insurer will take you on. But with our fire losses, CFP covers over 320,000 policies – about 3% of Californians.  (By contrast, Washington State’s CFP Plan only covers about 130 policies.) (2)

CFP doesn’t take all comers. Brokers must answer questions about why they’re placing the risk with it, and confirm they’ve been declined by other carriers. As a result, CFP’s growing share of high-risk properties results in more expense for insurers and higher premiums for the insured..(3)

But…there are other problems.  According to a June article in the San Francisco Standard, critics say the CFP is underfunded and mismanaged.  Perhaps not surprising since, as the article says, “The very companies that refuse to insure properties in high-risk areas are still insuring them through the “back door” of CFP, and it doesn’t always pay out when it ought to.’

The article goes on to cite a Department of Insurance four-year study that found numerous issues, including that the CFP on occasion failed to provide standard fire insurance coverage, particularly regarding smoke damage claims. .(4)

Kensington Fire Safe’s insurance advisor, Scott Caraveo, says the process can be slow. “As homeowners buy in areas with higher fire risk, they’re ending up with five or more insurance quotes from several brokers, which may all be from the CFP. So now CFP has five different applications from five different brokers, all for the same address, creating a gigantic backlog.  The three or four days it used to take for a CFP quote to be returned have become three weeks or more.”

Scott Caraveo, Insurance Advisor to Kensington Fire Safe

Higher Prices & Less Coverage

Scott pointed out there was a 15 percent increase this past December, but it’s not spread evenly. According to a November ABC report, “Some people in the most wildfire-prone, high-risk areas could see their rates as much as double.”  And CFP covers less than traditional insurance plans.(5)   Of course, some of our neighbors have already seen their homeowner insurance double if it’s renewed at all.

So, that’s the bad CFP news.  The good news is we at least have a backup   insurance option.  If interested, your insurance broker can help with the plan’s application process, which requires information on your home’s replacement costs and date-stamped photos.  You’re supposed to get a quote that’s good for 30 days.

Another option is an excess and surplus (E&S) carrier specializing in insuring high-risk properties.  These policies are not backed by the California Insurance Guarantee Association, although they likely have other fail safes, such as reinsurance. Check with your broker or the Surplus Line Association of California website for more information.

Meanwhile, make your home more attractive to insurers by hardening it against fire embers. A good time to trim excess green fuel and dump it for free is during the KFS Spring Dumpathon,  Thursday, April 25 to Monday, May 6th.  Check for location announcements at kensingtonfiresafe.org and on Nextdoor. And please, no non-greens. We can be fined for that!

Watch for announcements about our April 25th to May, 6th Dumpathon!

By the Fire Safe Way… we’re hoping to arrange two presentations this Spring: 

  • Efforts to Keep Our Canyons Safe by representatives from San Diego Open Space Brush Management and the San Diego Fire Department.
  • Assessing Fire Risk by representatives from Verisk on how they report on risk for insurance companies. 
  • Watch for date announcements on Nextdoor and KFS’s Facebook page.  To receive this info directly, send your email address to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org

Notes:

  1. https://www.cfpnet.com/about-fair-plan/#:~:text=The%20California%20FAIR%20Plan%20was,from%20a%20traditional%20insurance%20carrier.
  2. https://content.naic.org/cipr-topics/fair-access-insurance-requirements-fair-plans#:~:text=The%20states%20that%20have%20their,similar%20purpose%20to%20FAIR%20plans.
  3. https://sfstandard.com/2023/10/19/california-insurance-crisis-CFP-plan-1000-applications-rate-increase/
  4. https://sfstandard.com/2023/06/05/as-insurers-retreat-california-homeowners-may-need-the-CFP-plan-so-what-is-it/
  5. https://www.cfpnet.com/
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Fire Safe News

When Is the City Going to Trim Our Overgrown Canyons?

“Fire-ey Questions …from Your Neighbors” article in the January 2024 edition of the MetroView.

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe

Kensington’s fire safe council will share researched answers to inquiries from community members here. Please send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures really appreciated too!

Q:  From Kensington resident Cynthia Offenhauer: “Hi KFS!  On daily trips from Kensington to Talmadge, I see so much overgrown brush around Aldine, Fairmount, and Montezuma – not only a fire hazard but in some areas, impossible to see entering or exiting traffic. Do you know the schedule for trimming some of this?  Can’t we trim like Chula Vista is doing?

A:  Cynthia – We’re sure you’re not alone in wondering about this. There’s likely both public and private property in these areas, although I suspect most of the area is public.

Public Property

We checked with the San Diego Fire Department in November and were told that crews were currently working in “Area 5” which includes a significant amount of land from Mission Hills to Montezuma, and north to Kearney Mesa, and covers Aldine, Fairmount and Montezuma canyons.

Parks and Recreation Open Space Project Officer, Laura Ball, clarified for us that brush management for open space work is actually overseen by their department.  They focus on thinning and pruning public open spaces that are within 100 feet of a structure.  I’m hoping that by the time you read this, some of that brush is gone.

There’s an online “Brush Management Schedule” which lists which areas are currently being targeted and a projected timeline for completion. https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/brushprioritymaplist.pdf

The phone number for questions on Open Space Brush Management is 619-685-1350.

No DIY on City Property

The City of San Diego initially charged a homeowner $53,000 for “cost recovery” for clearing brush in land behind their house, which turned out wasn’t their property but rather part of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. The charge was later re-negotiated.  While the homeowner was apparently trying to make their house safer from wildfires, the city maintains – and our research concurs – far less fire-resistant, non-native species take over in cleared lands. So make sure that’s your backyard, before tackling overgrowth.  https://hoodline.com/2023/07/san-diego-man-fined-53k-for-trimming-bushes-that-he-says-pose-fire-risk-to-his-property/

Private Land

Some parts of the canyons Cynthia mentions are likely private property – like  the finger ones between Aldine and Adams. As of this writing, nine of those lots – 2.78 acres – are for sale and zoned for limited residential development. 

San Diego Fire-Rescue Fire Prevention Bureau Message Line (619-533-4388) helps arrange engine and truck company inspections of private property. This can occur when there is a complaint, but they also conduct routine brush management inspections on homes in the high fire severity zones – which includes all this area.  These door-to-door inspections primarily for canyon rim homes are done every few years.  Kensington area was inspected early in 2023.  The online “Open Boundary Map”  shows where these assessments are currently in process.  https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/boundary_map_sept_2023

When requested to do an inspection for a pending house sale, the department charges $118. (http://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/legacy/fire/pdf/brushpdf.pdf)

Fire Safety Champions: Chula Vista?

Using a FEMA grant, Chula Vista did massive excess brush thinning and removal in some of their finger canyons, as explained by Fire Captain Andy Wilson on our local NBC news. The plan is to develop a dedicated team to do this, funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016. 

San Diego already has dedicated Parks and Rec Dept. but does also engage contractors to help cover most of our open space.  However, a number of agencies are also responsible for some areas.  You can learn more details in the Brush Management Audit was that was recently approved by City Council. (See https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/24-01_performance_audit_of_the_citys_brush_mgmt_city_owned_land.pdf

From Performance Audit of the City’s Brush Management on City Owned Land, July 2023

By the Fire Safe Way…

Density-Danger & Insurance: KFS and others continue to be concerned with ADU apartment buildings going up in canyon rim communities.  After much research, we’re convinced added ADU apartment density is going to further the already high cost and low  availability of insurance for homeowners and renters in ADU and the adjacent blocks as well.

We’ve asked that, prior to granting higher density permits in these canyon rim areas, state and city officials consider, #1 requiring some investigation of insurance availability for the new ADU apartment building, #2 pro-active notice to nearby neighbors of the permit application, and #3 the opportunity for local community input.   Please make your voices heard if you agree.

Free Home Assessments: Fire Safe Council of San Diego County is now accepting applications for their free Home Assessment Program This includes trained staff looking at your property’s vulnerability to wildfire and ember ignition along with resilience recommendations for you to consider. Applications to sign up will be available in January, 2024. More info at: https://firesafesdcounty.org/hap/

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Fire Safe News

Free Home Assessment Program!

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Fire Safe News

Kensington Helps Fire Up Firefighters’ Holiday!

Generous Kensington residents did it again! Our mailing list donors helped fund a great season’s greeting to our treasured Felton Street firefighters: a $750 gift certificate for Iowa Meat Farms’ delicious meats and groceries.  

We thought this was a good follow-up to the donated, professional-grade grill we were able to secure from Lowe’s last April for Station 18. You can read more about this collaboration here.

We delivered our gift last week to the firefighters and they were so appreciative – exclaiming,  “We love Kensington!”  They’re looking forward to enjoying a steak, chicken or fish during a memorable cookout.

Thank you once again, Kensington, for being part of this meaningful initiative. Your generosity is sure to brighten up the season for our local heroes.

Wishing you happy holidays,

Kensington Fire Safe Board of Directors

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Fire Safe News

Is Adding Housing Density Near Our Canyons Insane?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe

Kensington’s fire safe council will share our researched answers to inquiries from community members here. Please send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures really appreciated too!

Q: “What does Kensington Fire Safe think about new, multi-unit ADUs along the canyon rim?”  …asks local resident, Sandra Johnson.

A: Sandra, we’re not experts on much of anything, but as someone who lives where the 1985 Normal Heights fire destroyed 75 houses– you’ve no doubt heard a lot about how fast that fire spread, how far embers flew, and the challenges of evacuating a lot of folks quickly.  

Apparently Sandra and her neighbors are now facing an “accessory dwelling unit” issue head on with a nearby Normal Heights property, where nine – yes, NINE –  additional units are planned on a small, single-family lot.  State law only requires that one ADU and one “junior” (1) ADU be allowed in a single-family zone, but as many of you have no doubt read, San Diego has chosen to go significantly beyond that limited but pretty reasonable requirement.

Of course, more affordable housing is essential for San Diego, but doesn’t common-sense scream against adding a lot of density to City and State-designated “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones” (VHFHSZs – not a great acronym).  

Turns out, like most things, the situation is much more complicated than it looks, as Sandy helped us discover.  Some of the issues:

Is Code Compliance Enough?

The City’s Bonus ADU program allows virtually unlimited housing units in the city-designated “Sustainable Development Areas.”(1)  However, developers are required to meet upgraded codes that further dictate approved materials and construction methods to mitigate exterior wildfire exposure. With Sandra’s help, we reached out to Fire Department officials with some very specific questions and learned that there are significant fire-resistant requirements that do make an enormous difference in the home’s survival rate.  

In the 2017 Thomas Fire, more than 90 percent of the structures destroyed were reported to have fire-resistant construction..(2)   Maybe upgraded codes since then would help bring that percentage down, but how much? While it sounds like the newer standards reduce the likelihood of embers igniting a structure, thus slowing the fire’s spread, they don’t render homes fireproof. In the event of a blaze, occupants must still get out fast. 

A study of the 2018 Camp Fire showed that distance from nearby structures was one of the strongest predictors of a home surviving the blaze (3)  There’s no way around the fact that ADUs can radically reduce the distance between residentials structures. Just look at these pictures of some current ADU additions, curtesy of Neighbors for a Better San Diego.

Density Dangers

Will more people reduce safe egress?  A quick look at a Google Earth map shows how extremely limited escape routes are in many of our canyon areas. In some cases, streets nearest the canyons have only one narrow street in and out. Prime example: East Alder area, the site of a canyon fire in 2019.  Increasing our “population-to-evacuation route ratios” may increase dangers to residents and firefighters.  Should probably make that a definite “will.”

More people, less water pressure?  One of the reported issues in the Normal Heights fire was lack of sufficient water pressure.   Although water pipes in some neighborhoods have been upgraded, what is the potential impact of this much additional density on the water system?  We couldn’t find evidence that issue was addressed.

More people, more resources?  The city can’t keep up with current canyon brush management needs – yet alone do more to protect a higher population on the canyon rim.  And will our firefighters get more resources when more fires start in additional kitchens, backyard BBQ grills or fire pit flames?   Kensington already had some large flames from a BBQ grill on Alder.

Added homeowner insurance challenges?  Large developers can self-insure, but individual homeowners and renters increasingly face few options, as major insurers withdraw from our market, deny coverage, or impose unmanageable rate increases.  It’s not hard to believe that additional density in canyon areas won’t cause insurers additional reasons to stay away.

Of course, California insurance Commissioner Lara is allowing more rate-setting flexibility to entice insurers to stay or come back.  Overall good news – maybe the FAIR plan won’t go broke – but it likely means ever-higher rates.   Some residents may then feel forced to go bare and end up in even more dire straits in the event of a fire destroying their home.  While no one died in the flames of the 1985 Normal Heights Fire, we’ve been told there were deaths soon afterwards, many of whom were elderly and had no insurance to cover their loss.

Are Just Our Canyon Rim Areas VHFHSZs?

Trying to limit excessive density increases in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones sounds reasonable on the surface, but with over 150 urban canyons, close to half of our city is designated very high fire hazard!  So that idea is pretty much DOA.  

It’s the City’s Bonus ADU program that apparently allows virtually unlimited ADUs within one mile walking distance from a major transit stop. According to a Neighbors for a Better San Diego analysis, in our city, 40.3% of the 65,010 parcels that one-mile covers are also in VHFHSZs.(4)    But, again, State law only requires that one ADU and one junior ADU be allowed on a single-family zoned lot.  Changing that to half a mile away from a major transit stop could reduce that number of included parcels to 27,871, although 31.6% would still be in VHFHSZs.  A huge improvement, but is half a mile away always far from a canyon rim?

What to do?

The issue is far more complex that I fully understand or could cover in this article, but no matter what, increasing density in communities very close to canyons defies common sense. One or two small ADUs should be enough where there’s extra high fire risk, we shouldn’t have a nine-plex going up on a canyon rim. 

Please make your voice for fire safety heard!

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Fire Safe News

Celebrating the Fall 2023 Dumpathon

The story is simple. We provide the dumpsters, you provide the fire fuel in the form of your canyon and yard trimmings. We haul away over 15 tons of potentially flammable green waste and that makes Kensington safer from wildfire. When all the work is done we come together as a community to celebrate our achievement. The Fall 2023 Dumpathon marked yet another success!

A huge round of applause for our 15 dedicated dumpster-minders, the unsung heroes who graciously allowed us to place a dumpster in front of their homes for ten days. While we weren’t able to capture a photo of everyone, we extend heartfelt gratitude to all the volunteers. Here’s a glimpse of some of our remarkable individuals:

After hauling away over 15 tons of fire fuel from our neighborhood, we deserved a celebration! Terri Mathes, a board member, opened her doors to our community, inviting us to celebrate our accomplishment at her and her husband Jim and wonderful dog Hawkeye’s charming residence.

Guest were warmly greeted by board member Ryan Hunter and his husband J.B.

The celebration was graced with a fantastic array laid out by the Kensington Fire Safe board. The tantalizing spread was a sight to behold.

“And the Oscar goes to…” Each dumpster-minder was presented an “Oscar” as a token of appreciation for their exceptional service to the community, accompanied by a bottle of wine, graciously donated by the KFS board.

The highlight of the event was the arrival of our esteemed guests, the members of Fire Station 18. Their presence was an acknowledgment of our collective commitment to fire safety. They offered their heartfelt thanks before they were urgently called away.

With renewed spirits, guests enjoyed the remainder of the gathering, fostering a sense of camaraderie and community spirit that resonated throughout the celebration.

The Fall 2023 Dumpathon was more than just a cleanup; it was a testament to unity, shared responsibility, and the significance of coming together as a community for a safer future.

Funding for the Dumpathon is provided by The San Diego Regional Fire Foundation, SDG&E, The San Diego River Conservancy and Kensington residents.

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Uncategorized

Are qualified home-hardening inspectors a rare breed?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe

Kensington’s fire safe council will share our researched answers to inquiries from community members here. Please send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures really appreciated too!

Q: “Are there qualified professionals who can inspect my home and tell me how to make it more firesafe?”  …asks Kensington canyon resident, Michael Kimmel.

And this month’s KFS Good Neighbor Award goes to Michael – hardening even a single home can help protect others nearby as well! And your award is a definite maybe answer to your question. Here’s some options we found:

Certified Inspectors?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a “Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Training and Certification,”  but there’s no directory of their certified inspectors, although they told us they expect to have one online soon. (https://www.nfpa.org/Training-and-Events/Certification/Certification/Certified-Wildfire-Mitigation-Specialist)

But we found two possibilities for our area:

  • Wildfire Home Hardening Specialists/Danny Glessner  are NFPA CWMS certified. Danny inspected one Kensington residence – the owner said she was very pleased with his work.   (760-822-4822, homehardening@gmail.com)
  • The Real Estate Inspection Company, said their certification is in process. They charge $399 for an inspection but will provide our readers with a $100 discount if you use code HFH100. (760 203-9682,  www.SDinspect.com)

Until California has its own certification (expected 2025), San Diego Fire Rescue Dept. recommends using a state-licensed contractor well-versed in Chapter 7A of the building code. (osfm.fire.ca.gov/media/ljhll2h3/2023-sfm-wui-listed-products-handbook-3-29-2023.pdf)

Other Possibilities

  1. San Diego Fire Rescue Department conducts door-to-door inspection of homes in  “Very High Hazard Severity Zones,” which includes most of Kensington.  However, with current staffing, it takes approximately 4.5 years to cover the entire city.
    • If you believe there’s a fire hazard within 100 feet of your home, you can contact the Fire Hazard Advisor. The Brush Clerk will send an advisor to conduct a site assessment.  Of course, if they find code violations, you may be issued a citation that can result in fines if you don’t correct the problem. (619-533-4444, https://sandiego.gov/fire/services/complaintinspections.)
    • Also, owners selling a home in one of these zones must arrange for a “Defensible Space Assessment” as part of the real estate disclosure requirements, which may differ from other inspection requirements. (https://www.sandiego.gov/fire/services/ab38)
  2. Insurers often have trained agents to do home inspections, particularly if they are offering discounts for significant hardening efforts, e.g., new roofs, wiring updates, central fire alarm systems, etc. Check out: (insurance.ca.gov/01-consumers/105-type/95-guides/03-res/Insurers-Currently-Offering-Discounts.cfm)
  3. Non-profits:
    1. For folks with limited ability to harden their home because of physical, economic, or other barriers (1) the Defensible Space Assistance Program has trained inspectors and  potential financial assistance. (firesafesdcounty.org/dsap/), and (2) the National Volunteer Fire Council trains Fire Corp programvolunteers to conduct home safety checks. (nvfc.org/programs/firecorps/)
    2. The American Red Cross and partners offer free wildfire preparedness visits where they assess and give tips on the first five feet of defensible space. They also provide free smoke, bed-shaker and strobe alarms. No qualifications or restrictions. (619-354-9609, www.SoundTheAlarm.org\SoCal ).
  4. DIY:  Several on-line tools for a do-it-yourself assessment come up on a “home hardening” search, for example:
    1. Wildfire Prepared Home” – this insurance industry’s designation might get you an insurance premium discount. Their online initial questionnaire is quite comprehensive, but beyond that there’s a fee. (wildfireprepared.org/wildfire-prepared-home-base-assessment/)
    1. Two other good info sources: CalFire’s Ready for Wildfire.   (readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/hardening-your-home/), and the  “Safer from Wildfires” program: (www.insurance.ca.gov/01-consumers/200-wrr/Safer-from-Wildfires.cfm)

Two side notes:

  1. Fire Chief Anthony Tosca, who thankfully helped with this info, also highly recommends residents consider establishing a local fire safe council – funding is available to help create a safer community.  Heh, Normal Heights, Talmadge, City Heights– how about it?
  2. James McBroom, a NFPA-certified, Alpine Fire Marshall, says it’s time to remove ALL combustible materials from the first five feet around our home exterior. That means no plants, vegetation, wood fencing, mulch, or bark.  Replace with rocks, stone, pavers, or just bare mineral soil. Plants in non-combustible pots under 18″ high, might be OK but NOT in front of a window. 

Hardening against a fire can be a few simple steps, like small-gauge hardwire on your vents — or more involved and potentially expensive efforts.  On the other hand, that could be a piece of cake compared to the cost of replacing your home after a fire. Even if you’re insured, deductibles and gaps in coverage can be significant.  Just ask one of the 75 Normal Heights residents who lost their home to the terrible fire in 1985.

Wonder how many of them, like many of us, thought “it can’t happen here!” As Gary Weber, a resident who lived through it told me, “It truly was a firestorm, and I’m not sure that anything could have stopped it once the winds were amplified as they entered the canyons.” 

www.sandiego.gov/fire/about/majorfires/1985normalheights

Thin, Trim and Dump

Oh, and an easy hardening opportunity – thin and trim during Kensington Fire Safe’s Fall Dumpathon, September 28 to October 9th to take advantage of our free dumpsters!  Locations will be announced on Nextdoor, KFS Facebook page, and our website (kensingtonfiresafe.org/dumpathon/)! Great time to dump leggy, excess or dead greenery before it becomes potential fire fuel!

Thank you Jim Baross for this 1985 Normal Heights fire picture, taken from Jim’s driveway in the 3300 block of North Mountain View. Jim’s house was unharmed except for the door the firefighters broke down, but 75 other neighbors completely lost their home.

Photo curtesy of Richard Miller, a Normal Heights resident since 1976.

A Normal Heights home during the ’85 wildfire.

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Fire Safe News Fire-Wise Landscaping

The Making of a Swale

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Fire Safe News Fire-Wise Landscaping

Eucalyptus: Garden Friend or Fire Foe?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe

This column is your fire safe council’s effort to share answers to questions we get from community members. Send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org and we’ll do our best to find the answer!

Q: My own question this time! Lively conversation with a Master Gardener at Kensington Earth Day left me wondering, is eucalyptus the highly flammable bad-boy as we’ve been led to believe?

What’s not to love about eucalyptus trees? Wonderful shade in hot summer months? The roosts, perches, and nests they provide for raptors and other birds? The nesting material their litter supplies local alligator lizards and rat-eating gopher snakes?  Or just that these attractive, year-round green trees often smell good and have lots of medicinal uses? (1)

Too bad “some are bullies” according to local, award-winning landscaper, Greg Rubin. Their bad behavior includes crowding out often much less flammable native plants, especially with the aggressive species’ fibrous, greedy root systems that “take no prisoners.”  This includes the most prevalent blue gums, initially planted over 40,000 southern California acres starting in the mid-1800’s.  Rut Row! Now the California Invasive Plan Council (Cal-IPC ) classifies blue gums as “limited invasive“ — because their significant negative ecological impacts occur in limited areas along the California coast. (2)

Greg says he has no problem with “Eucalyptus citriodora “…beautiful, graceful, non-aggressive large form, that plays nice with our extremely delicate, complex, and non-competitive ecology.”

But back to fire safety. Bottom line: they are not native and don’t belong in our canyons. It’s all about the bark they shed.  A well-tended euc in a homeowner’s yard isn’t likely to go up in flames as fast as a wild canyon one with highly flammable detritus at the base accumulating unabated. In fact, according to a National Park Service publication on eucalyptus – “Firefighters also now realize that wildfires are almost impossible to contain in eucalyptus forests.” Want more insights? Consult the NPS Fire Management Newsletter edition on “Eucalyptus; A Complex Challenge” (3)

Moisture Matters Most

Regardless of what kind of tree or plants you put in your yard, Greg says the most important element for fire resistance is moisture. The benefit of native, drought-tolerant plants is that a little water goes a long way, and they’ll retain it better than most non-natives. Nearly two dozen properties Greg landscaped with native plants survived major area fires, without the loss of a single home!

But aside from going native, how can we increase moisture and conserve our precious water at the same time?  How about letting winter rainfall increase your ground water with a swale…big, little, mini? Why send that precious runoff into sewers to eventually muck up our rivers and waterways?  Greg cites how Dennis Mudd, creator of Calscape.org, runs swales throughout his wonderful plantings. The soil fungi in the swale moves the moisture over to his drought tolerant plantings and greatly reduces the need for watering.  That’s because you put compost in the swale and the bacteria in it will over time help break up the clay in the surrounding areas.

I recently put a swale in my front yard to catch the overflow from one of our rain barrels – which starts flowing in 5-10 minutes during a downpour.  Now I’m making small ones wherever there’s a low patch where I plan to garden.  YouTube has plenty of videos on how to build a swale, but you can check out what I did with pictures at kensingtonfiresafe.org. Have a swale time working on yours!

Read Judy’s post about creating a small swale in her Kensington garden.

Sitting in my swale…Judy Harrington

  1. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=67348
  2. https://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.v070n01p39
  3. https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/management/upload/firemanagement_fireeducation_newsletter_eucalyptus.pdf
  4. https://milliontrees.me/2014/07/21/tracking-down-the-truth-about-blue-gum-eucalyptus/