Gov't Needs to Do More to Protect Communities From Fires: Ex-Cal Fire Chief

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott, just before his retirement, said the government needs to raise the bar on protecting the community from fires.

Former Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott believes the government needs to raise the bar on protecting the community from fires.

The very strong statement from the retiring chief of the state's fire agency resonates with many North County residents urging similar protections are needed where some new housing developments are located in high-risk fire zones.

One controversial project is located in Eden Valley, just west of Escondido, where horses possibly outnumber people, where living in the peaceful enclave also means accepting the risk, and the reality, of wildfires.

The Valiano housing project, already approved by county supervisors, would add more than 300 homes and widen nearby roads.

"It's tough getting everybody out at the present population," said Eden Valley resident Jan Duncan. "The last fire that came through here, Cocos Fire, took out five houses in this very neighborhood."

And if neighbors were already concerned, this might alarm them even more: bombshell remarks from Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott, just before his retirement in mid December.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Pimlott said government officials need to raise the bar on protecting the community. And much to the satisfaction of neighbors, Pimlott also said officials should consider banning home construction in vulnerable areas.

Cal Fire in San Diego would not comment on those remarks, saying the agency does not dictate policy.

The County of San Diego gave us this statement: "The County's General Plan and Zoning Ordinance establishes development standards and guides where development can and cannot occur. Also, various open space and conservation easements may be used to limit building activities to protect biological resources."

But as more people move to California, developers will continue to build. And locals will often try to stop the developments from going through.

Community groups have filed a lawsuit over the Valiano development.

"We already know from the Cocos Fire, there are 80 homes in this valley and they had a difficult time evacuating all 80 of us without animals," said Bill Osborn, a former firefighter who lives in Eden Valley.

The county said it does not comment on pending litigation, but did tell us it takes fire safety seriously.

"County staff work with the local fire departments and the County Fire Authority to ensure projects meet the County Consolidated Fire Code through the preparation of Fire Protection Plans that address aspects like water supply, road access, and defensible space."

Osborn said fire planners are looking at evacuations microscopically.

"So if you look at the surrounding roadways that exit this development there are two planned primary exits and one emergency exit. But those roadways all lead to one road-- Country Club Drive, a two-lane country road," said Osborn. "While they may be able to get everybody out of the immediate development, as soon as they hit Country Club, They're going to be stuck in traffic. And that's an ideal situation for people to die trying to evacuate from a fire."

Osborn added, even building with new fire-resistant materials isn't enough.

"You can surely build it so that it makes it more protectable, more defensible. But you're not going to be able to keep it from burning. You bring in an urban environment into a rural community and they're not going to be prepared. They’re not going to understand how fast fire moves.”

What most do understand-- wildfires are part of California's ecosystem and the uneasy coexistence of homes, canyons and dry brush means communities need to become more resilient.

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