EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include information about cash donations from Integral Communities to the Oceanside Firefighters Association.
OCEANSIDE — Fire Chief Rick Robinson wrote a letter in late September suggesting a community like North River Farms would not be at greater risk for wildfires in an area like South Morro Hills.
The letter, dated Sept. 24, addresses a “concern among some constituents that future developments in South Morro Hills pose significant fire and evacuation risks to surrounding communities.”
According to Robinson, significant fires in new construction areas are rare. All new homes and commercial properties are built with automatic fire sprinkler systems, and buildings within wildland-urban interface areas like South Morro Hills are built to meet fire codes for those areas.
“Should a fire occur and should the protective systems operate as designed, occupants will receive early fire warning and have egress protection to facilitate a safe evacuation,” Robinson said. “Any fire is undesirable and while we are never totally safe from such an event, survivability of occupants will be improved and total fire loss should be significantly less than homes and businesses without such systems.”
Fires represent less than 800 or 2% of the Oceanside Fire Department’s responses in 2019.
To prevent the threat of vegetation or other external fires, new developments must install fire-resistive plant pallets and clear vegetation around the communities. Additionally, the building code requires buildings to have non-combustible roof coverings, enclosed eaves, vent protection and other engineering that minimizes fire spread.
According to Robinson, these precautions mean fires that burn into communities will not have the same impacts as they have on older homes in California. It’s also less likely for a fire that starts in a new community to spread outside of that community.
Robinson also addressed concern regarding vegetation within the San Luis Rey River posing a fire threat, noting that he could not find an instance where fire escaped the riverbed and caused significant property damage.
There was one incident in 2014 when a fire escaped from the riverbank in the area where North River Farms would be located and was carried to North River Road. Robinson said the fire was controlled at the road and caused no structural damage on that side of the river. Two homes on the opposite side were damaged due to ember cast onto shake shingle roofs, but there was no total structural loss.
Robinson suggested that new construction like North River Farms would have helped firefighters in that area.
“New construction, access roads and fire-resistive plantings in this same area would have allowed firefighters to hold the fire at the river banks with less active fire spread,” Robinson said.
Concerns about fires in the South Morro Hills area have also cited the 2017 Lilac Fire as an example of why the new community isn’t a good fit. Residents experienced evacuation issues during that fire and many fear the new community will only make such procedures worse.
“The Lilac Fire in 2017 did create an evacuation challenge for Oceanside residents,” Robinson said.
Hundreds of vehicles from neighboring communities of Bonsall, Fallbrook, Vista, Rainbow and South Morro Hills were directed into downtown Oceanside by a Command Post located off of I-15 but not by city orders. Robinson said some residents in Vista and Oceanside were given evacuation orders even though they were never likely in danger or at direct threat from the fire.
“The result was too many cars trying to go in the same direction at the same time,” Robinson said. “While the inconvenience and fear factor for those on the road is understood, the truth was that once people removed themselves out of the South Morro Hills area they were no longer at risk.”
Since 2017, the County, Sheriff’s Department and CALFIRE have developed a Wireless Emergency Alerting System (WEA) that delivers more precise evacuation notice.
“It is my professional opinion that a well-designed, well-built community with residents who educate themselves about the risks of living in a wildland interface community should not be at any greater risk nor should such a development create a greater risk to the surrounding communities,” Robinson said.
Voters will determine the fate of North River Farms on Nov. 3. A “yes” vote on Measure L is in favor of the project.
North River Farms has gained the official support of the Oceanside Fire Association. According to “YES on L” spokesperson Tanya Castaneda, OFA authorized the campaign to display its logo as a supporter on the website.
According to Integral Communities’ Form 461 filing with the city, which reports donations from major donors, the NRF owner donated $10,000 to the fire union on Oct. 24, 2019, and another $20,000 on Nov. 8, 2019.
North River Farms agreed to donate one acre of land where Fire Station No. 9 will be built. The station will include a one-bay garage to accommodate a full-size fire truck, furniture, fixtures and equipment, a vehicle exhaust extrication system, station alerting features, storage space, three dormitories, toilet/shower facilities, office space and a restroom for public use.
The fire engine will be a smaller but faster version of the larger fire trucks but will come with the same equipment and is capable of off-road travel.
“First responders are able to arrive on-site to fire emergency calls while they’re still small and manageable,” Castenada said via email.
The engine’s cost is an estimated $350,000.
Additionally, North River Farms will fund a salary for medical and fire certified staff for a fully staffed fire station, which will accommodate two personnel per day and a total of six personnel assigned to the station.