VISTA — It was a hot wind that greeted Vista firefighters on the morning of Nov. 8. It wasn’t a fire they faced but a skeptical and sometimes hostile crowd of several hundred residents, mostly seniors, who packed City Hall to discuss the recently released Cal Fire Hazard Safety Severity Zone maps.
The object of contention was the map of Vista developed by Cal Fire, the state department of forestry and fire protection, which showed the city’s borders were besieged by great swathes of red indicating zones of “Very High Fire Hazard Severity.” Typically, these areas are undeveloped brush lands.
By state law, houses and businesses within these zones must maintain a firebreak around their property and new construction is held to higher standards.
“That’s what these maps do,” Chief Gary Fisher said. “They allow us to identify the hazardous areas and require new construction to be more stringent so that they will survive the fire hazard.”
State law requires that people who sell property located in a very high severity zone must disclose this information to potential buyers. Residents voiced concerns that their properties located in a red zone would suffer a drop in value.
“I’m concerned about being able to sell my property because someone is going to be afraid that they’re buying a property that’s in a fire hazard,” Mike Nord, who owns a 17-home subdivision at the edge of the red zone, said.
Many also worried that the maps will be used by insurance companies as an excuse to raise rates. “Impacts to insurance premiums are not anticipated,” Deputy Chief Randy Terich said, which was met with skeptical catcalls prompting Chief Gary Fisher to step forward.
“They do not use these maps,” Fisher said. “They’re too general … These maps really don’t hold any water for the insurance companies. Now you may or may not believe that, and I can’t make you believe that, but I’m telling you what the experts and what the industry officials are telling me.”
Fisher later qualified his statement. “I can’t give you a 100 percent guarantee (the maps) won’t affect your insurance.”
Cal Fire Regional Director Sass Barton urged any residents who suffer an insurance premium increase or cancellation as a result of the new maps to contact the state insurance commissioner for redress.
Fisher asked that the audience not hold the City Council or the Fire Department accountable for the new risk assessment.
“We’re just the messenger here,” Fisher said. “This is something that is at the state level, and we have very little control over how this goes.”
Fisher added that the city and the Fire Department requested a reduction of the very high risk area, but that request was largely rejected by the state. Only the south Vista business park’s danger level was revised downward. He said it was unlikely that individuals would be able to get their status changed.
In light of the reception the Cal Fire map received at the Nov. 8 meeting and the follow up meeting on Nov. 10, the city has postponed the discussion to adopt the map at the Nov. 18 City Council meeting and will instead address the issue early next year.
In that time, the Vista Fire Department will re-examine the Cal Fire map and again try to reduce the area designated as “very high hazard.”
The current Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps are available online from a link on the city’s Web page at www.cityofvista.com.