Roadside vegetation management program OK’d

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a road­side vegetation management program intended to increase wildfire preparedness in unin­corporated San Diego County.

The supervisors’ 5-0 vote Ju­ly 13 approved an option with a comprehensive countywide approach to roadside vegeta­tion management, directed the county’s chief administrative officer to return to the board within 90 days with a funding source and a timeline to imple­ment the vegetation manage­ment program, and directed the chief administrative officer to continue stakeholder outreach on the Defensible Space for Fire Protection Ordinance and to re­turn to the county supervisors within 90 days with a proposal to amend the ordinance to align it with the County Consolidated Fire Code.

“I think this is an important step,” said Board of Supervisors chair Nathan Fletcher.

“It’s extremely important,” said Supervisor Nora Vargas.

The county maintains near­ly 2,000 miles of roadway, and nearly 80 percent of that road­way is in areas designated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as high or very high fire hazard severity zones. The San Diego County Fire Protection District works with the county’s Depart­ment of Public Works (DPW) to prioritize maintenance along county-maintained roadways which are considered critical evacuation corridors.

“We have a paramount re­sponsibility to protect them as best as we can,” said Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.

“Evacuation is a real concern during a wildfire,” said Super­visor Jim Desmond. “Clearing roadways is going to be an im­portant part of that.”

DPW typically undertakes maintenance on approximately 500 lane miles of roadway each fiscal year although the main­tenance activity is planned to increase to 800 lane miles for Fiscal Year 2021-22. DPW per­forms vegetation management to a width of 20 feet from the roadway if that off-roadway area is part of the public right-of-way, and if the county has less than 20 feet of right-of-way DPW co­ordinates with property owners to pursue additional vegetation management.

“Wildfire is one of the biggest threats that we face,” Desmond said. “I think we need to do all we can to minimize the risk.”

On March 16 the Board of Su­pervisors directed the chief ad­ministrative officer to return to the board with an update on ac­tions to increase vegetation man­agement along county roads, to explore options to align sections of the county code to allow for 20 feet of clearance, to develop a program to expand vegetation management, to identify public roads which could benefit from additional vegetation manage­ment and a per-mile cost for that work, to determine the pro­posed frequency for vegetation management on specific road segments, and to return to the board with options to implement a new vegetation management program.

Three options were provided. The first option was enhancing the existing defensible space inspection program, which had an annual estimated cost of $594,991. The option to in­crease the focus on key evacua­tion corridors and on roads with single entry and exit points had an estimated annual cost of $1,779,000.

The supervisors chose the comprehensive countywide ap­proach to roadside vegetation management even though it had the highest estimated cost at $2,643,031. The program will organize the county into north and south regions. The county fire department and DPW will collaborate with the California Department of Transportation (which is responsible for main­taining Interstate freeways and state highways), property own­ers, and independent fire protec­tion districts. The program will focus on identifying and manag­ing vegetation along evacuation corridors and communities with single entry and exit points. The San Diego County Fire Protec­tion District will increase com­munity engagement through di­rect mail and community-based workshops, the SDCFPD will collaborate with Caltrans to identify state roads which may benefit from additional vegeta­tion management, and DPW will perform vegetation management on an additional 200 lane miles within the public right-of-way.

“Well-maintained infrastruc­ture is a core responsibility of government,” Desmond said.

The current Defensible Space for Fire Protection Ordinance requires ten feet of vegetation management alongside road­ways and driveways and al­lows the county’s fire warden to require additional vegetation management as necessary in ac­cordance with the Consolidated Fire Code which allows juris­dictions to require a property owner to modify up to 20 feet of vegetation along roadways. The SDCFPD is in the process of reviewing current roadside veg­etation management require­ments and is working with the county’s independent fire protec­tion districts.

“I really appreciate the board moving forward making our county more safe,” said Supervi­sor Joel Anderson.

Roadside vegetation management program OK’d

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