New policies better prepare San Diego for 2021 wildfire season

San Diego officials say they feel better prepared for what appears to be an unusually dangerous fire season in 2021 because of new efforts by the city and a new state policy.

The city has expanded its wildfire prevention efforts with new campaigns to evaluate the structural safety of homes near canyons and to respond more quickly to complaints about dangerous flammable brush.

City officials are also praising a new state policy that exempts property owners from some habitat and environmental prohibitions in cases where they need to clear flammable brush in sensitive areas or conduct other-fire-prevention efforts.

The new campaigns and policies come with officials especially concerned about this year’s fire season because of low rainfall this winter and spring, and long-term forecasts showing less rain than usual this fall.

City officials have begun prioritizing the roughly 1,500 annual complaints they get — mostly from neighbors — about homes where brush and weeds have been allowed to spread wildly and then dry out, said City Fire Marshal Doug Perry .

Sometimes inspectors are pulled off door-to-door crews visiting houses along canyon rims so they can focus instead on houses the city has received complaints about, he said.

“Our citizens don’t complain just to complain — they really have concerns,” Perry told the City Council’s public safety committee last week.

This approach also reduces the city’s legal liability, which is higher if a wildfire starts at a home that city officials were formally warned about, he said.

Another key change is expanding what gets examined during an inspection.

City crews previously focused only on evaluating the fire risk of overgrown weeds and excessive brush, but have now have begun assessing a home’s “structural hardening” against flames, embers and extreme heat, Perry said.

This is the second fire season where city crews have focused on structural hardening and prioritized complaints over routine inspections.

The third change, the state policy loosening habitat protections, is more recent and hasn’t been utilized by the city yet, he said.

Property owner in some areas previously have been prohibited between March 1 and Aug. 15 from touching vegetation deemed sensitive habitat.

Now property owners can trim or clear such vegetation if a local government agency declares it a public nuisance.

“It was more important to protect vegetation and the little animals, but we were willing to allow residents in their homes to burn,” Perry said. “Finally, common sense has come into play.”

Perry stressed that the exemptions will not be granted property-by-property but instead by blanket designation over a large area that a government agency has declared a high wildfire risk.

City officials also have considered hiring more staff so they can more frequently inspect all of the 45,000 homes in San Diego that are located along canyons. The current schedule, which is once every three to four years, could be accelerated to once a year.

Perry said that would require roughly doubling the number of city staff devoted to inspections. San Diego now has nine employees focused on such work, an increase from the two workers handling it before the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.

While the city can fine property owners for not complying with requests to clear brush or dangerous vegetation, Perry said the goal is to gently gain compliance.

“A lot of these people are elderly people, so sometimes it’s just that they maybe don’t have the money,” he said. “They also don’t have the ability to go out and take care of the issues. They have to get a contractor to come in.”

The city also encourages neighborhood-specific “fire safe” councils, groups of community leaders who meet to discuss challenges they face and to determine multiple potential evacuation routes. City fire officials provide feedback and other information at such meetings, Perry said.

“It’s really a good dialogue,” he said.

Fire officials also have stepped up efforts to prevent fires from being started by people living in homeless encampments in city canyons. Perry said his crews carefully map such fires to look for patterns and strategize prevention.

Another reason the city is more prepared this year is the $20 million firefighting helicopter the city bought 18 months ago. The Sikorsky helicopter, which is capable of dropping 1,000 gallons of water in a wildfire, replaced a model that could only drop 375 gallons.

For details, visit the city’s wildfire website at