In California, Mixed Results for Regulations Meant to Help Stop Fires



When residents do not comply with the regulations the city sends contractors to cut back vegetation and sends the bill to homeowners, imposing a lien on the property if they do not pay.

Chuck Sprankles, 62, a resident of the North County Fire Protection District, a semirural area north of San Diego, said the authorities came regularly to inspect the landscaping.

“The system is working,” Mr. Sprankles said. “If you notice, the homes that were burned up had a lot of brush and trees around them.”

Mr. Sprankles’s house, which sits on a one-acre lot, was spared, a fact that he attributes to his wife spending around five hours every week cutting overgrowth and collecting fallen leaves.

“Last week we had three barrels full,” he said.

In San Diego, Joanne Salzman applauded the program, noting that her home was also safe.

“We could have lost all of this,” she said.” Because when it takes one house, it takes another. I think it definitely helped.”

John Buchanan, an engineer paramedic with the district, said he saw examples last week of homes that firefighters were able to save because residents had cleared brush. “The fire came right up to around 40 homes and we were able to protect all of them,” he said.

Over all, 151 homes in his district were destroyed by the Lilac Fire in San Diego County, compared with around 250 during the last major wildfire in 2007, Mr. Buchanan said. The Lilac Fire was 80 percent contained on Monday.

Mr. Buchanan described seeing the fire leap over a four-lane highway driven by intense winds. “It looked like a million fireflies flying over to ignite the tinder dry brush,” Mr. Buchanan said.

However, Richard Halsey, the director of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of shrub land, said the fires of the past two months had proved what he argued has become the increasing futility of brush-removal programs that might have been effective.

“It’s not working,” he said. “These fires in October and this month clearly demonstrate we’re doing something wrong. We are not understanding that in this changing climate, with these fierce winds, nothing is going to work unless we address the flammability of these structures.”

Mr. Halsey said it would make far more sense to invest in home fire prevention systems — sprinkling systems that coat the outside of a house with a mist of water, and fire-resistant roofs — and to stop encouraging developments on land that are prone to wildfires.

But Chief Terrazas said it would be a mistake to abandon the brush-cutting policies. He said that while they might not have been as much help over these past two weeks, fires in California take very different forms.

“We don’t know what kind of fire we are going to have,” he said. “We have to use every tool we have.”

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