Emergency vehicles responded to the Lilac Fire on Dec. 7 on roads flanked by burning palm trees. Photo by Jeff Hall/Cal Fire
Community News

Officials: Brush-clearing saved hundreds of homes

REGION — Cindy Edge’s Bonsall home is surrounded by charred trees, hillsides and homes — but her Lilac Road home was relatively untouched.

Edge said that firefighters told her one of the reasons her home stood was the 100 feet of debris-free space surrounding her home.

“I feel very fortunate because there are four homes within 1,000 feet of my house that burned down,” said Edge, a math teacher at nearby Bonsall High School. “Having that defensible space is really important.”

North County Fire Protection District spokesman John Buchanan said that Edge’s account underscores the importance of “defensible space” during wildfires such as the Lilac fire, which burned 4,100 acres and destroyed or damaged 200 structures — but spared hundreds of others.

More homeowners are carving out that space around their homes — which is required by law — than in 2007, the last spate of deadly wildfires in San Diego County, Buchanan said.

“A lot of homeowners are more vigilant than they were in 2007,” Buchanan said. “Riding around the fire area, there was lots of good brush clearing around people’s property. That really aided firefighters gaining the upper hand.”

State law requires defensible space, which refers to the perimeter around a property that gives firefighters space to defend a home from advancing flames. In 2005, the state expanded the space from 30 feet to 100 feet.

State fire officials have been more active in inspecting the defensible space around homes in areas near wildfire-prone areas, known as the wildland-urban interface, since a controversial $152.33 fire prevention fee was first assessed on homes in 2012.

San Diego County in 2011 passed an ordinance that expands that space to include adjacent sidewalks, parking areas and streets, requiring homeowners to remove combustible vegetation, dead, dying or diseased trees, green waste, rubbish or similar materials from those areas.

Cal Fire Capt. Jon Heggie said defensible space is one of several factors fire crews take into account when determining whether they can save a home.

“It’s not the only factor, but it definitely helps,” he said.

Just over the hill from Edge, Mark Veltre lives in the Taylor Ridge Estates, a subdivision along a slope north of Lilac Road that also was in the path of the fire.

A drive down the neighborhood’s main drag, Taliesin Way, revealed a similar scene as near Edge’s home: singed trees, burned fences — but every structure intact.

“We feel like we are living in a dream that everything is still here,” Veltre said. “We’ve been only living here for two-and-a-half years, but we’ve been taking the defensible space to heart living in an area like this, and you can see, the neighbors have too. There’s really nothing to burn, and I think that helped.”