ESCONDIDO — Lisa Hoffman’s family lives near the Eagle Crest Golf Club in Escondido, just miles from the epicenter of a wildfire which engulfed a 365-acre area just several miles southeast of there along Highway 78 on July 27.
Dubbed the San Pasqual fire, which inflamed the land at the 17000 block of Highway 78, Hoffman told The Coast News that “when the fire started my husband and I were at work and kids were home.” The fire did not cause any structural damage, nor lead to any deaths or injuries in the area.
“It was pure panic, the kids were freaking out, my daughter was going to drive over from Carlsbad to grab pets, siblings and (our) fire safe for us,” said Hoffman. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like with hundreds more people in the area. Yes, we need more housing, and affordable housing, but that’s not the spot.”
Hoffman was referring to the spot being proposed just south of the Eagle Crest Golf Club and north of San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park known as Safari Highlands Ranch, a 1,100-acre plot of land on which the company Concordia Homes has proposed to build 550 new luxury homes.
Critics of the proposal have stated, well before the eruption of the San Pasqual Fire, that they believe building a housing complex in this area presents a fire hazard for its future residents. But the stoking of this latest fire has renewed those concerns.
“(M)emories of the Cedar fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek fire in 2007 are all too fresh in minds of many who call San Pasqual Valley home and the recent San Pasqual fire is yet another reminder of the fire risk in the valley,” NeySa Ely, CEO of the San Pasqual Valley Preservation Alliance, told The Coast News via email. “Safari Highlands Ranch will significantly add to that risk by constructing 550 luxury homes on the same type of terrain that burst into flames last Friday. As currently planned, Safari Highlands Ranch offers no infrastructure improvements that would significantly mitigate the additional risk.”
Proponents of the plan counter that planned precautions baked into the Safari Highlands development plan will ensure that residents in the planned real estate territory and surrounding communities will be safe if a fire akin to the San Pasqual fire approaches the land basin.
“We are thankful that no injuries or property damages were reported as a result of the recent San Pasqual fire. Safari Highlands Ranch will promote continued positive outcomes in the case of future wildfires by helping improve emergency response times and access in the San Pasqual Valley,” Kenneth Moore, spokesman for Concordia Homes and manager of public affairs at the public relations firm Southwest Strategies, said in a prepared statement.
Moore also stated that Safari Highlands Ranch will construct a new, two-way emergency access road in the area in case of a natural disaster, such as a wildfire, as well as a new 7,000-square-foot fire station “at no cost to the city of Escondido.”
“Ongoing staffing and operation costs will be funded through excess revenue generated by Safari Highlands Ranch and a new special assessment district placed on its new homeowners only,” Moore continued. “The new fire station will provide emergency services to the San Pasqual Valley within minutes, helping to save lives when seconds count and reducing homeowners’ insurance premiums for nearby residents.”
Not everyone involved in planning process, however, agrees with the Safari Highland safety assessment.
Charlie Jancic, chair of the city of San Diego’s San Pasqual-Lake Hodges Planning Group — which has not yet taken an official position on Safari Highlands — said his home was burned down in 2007 at the hands of the Gujieto fire and he has concerns that those the future generation of people who choose to dwell at the proposed facility could suffer the same fate if it receives city of Escondido approval. He read through the Environmental Impact Report and does not believe what’s found within it would be adequate enough to halt the carnage of a large-scale wildfire.
“The evacuation plan in the event of a major fire seems inadequate, especially when you consider a lot of working parents would be trying to get into the area to pick their kids up from the school which is on the main road out,” he said. “The firefighters at the proposed fire station would be hopelessly overwhelmed trying to protect 550 homes in a firestorm. Of course this means our limited outside fire resources could be diverted to Safari Highlands, and other areas would suffer from lack of protection.”
The Environmental Impact Report for Safari Highlands, though, says a new fire station in the area may be useful in fending off wildfires in that neck of the woods.
“(T)he on-site fire station would provide a fire and medical emergency response capability that is not currently available in the area,” explains the report, prepared for the city of Escondido by the firm Michael Barker International, which is owned by the Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm DC Capital Partners. “The ability to respond quickly to emergencies proportionately raises the probability of successful outcomes.”
Moore said that Safari Highlands Ranch expects the proposal to go in front of the city of Escondido’s Planning Commission and City Council later this year or early next year. Between now and then, the city will work on drafting the final Environmental Impact Report and responding to the public comments submitted about the proposal earlier this year.
“The memories of the Cedar Fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek Fire in 2007 are all too fresh in minds of many who call San Pasqual Valley home and the recent San Pasqual fire is yet another reminder of the fire risk in the valley. Safari Highlands Ranch will significantly add to that risk by constructing 550 luxury homes on the same type of terrain that burst into flames last Friday. As currently planned, Safari Highlands Ranch offers no infrastructure improvements that would significantly mitigate the additional risk. For instance, the current plan would have Safari Highlands Ranch using the same southern evacuation route that is already relied upon by existing communities and SHR’s plan for a northern evacuation route, as well as a fire station, is contingent upon further construction in later phases of the project, specifically after the 275th certificate of occupancy. Fire experts have characterized the proposed evacuation routes as being inconsistent with reasonable minimum safety standards and assessed the proposed fire station as being essentially irrelevant in suppressing wild fires entering the project site, not to mention that there has been no funding source identified for the personnel, maintenance and operational cost of a fire station. A recent suggestion by the developers is that future Safari Highlands Ranch residents will shoulder the ongoing costs to operate and maintain a fire station which is absurdly optimistic at best. A luxury home development in the steep, rural hills covered in coastal sage scrub and chaparral that attempts to leverage an existing single route of access creates many more problems than it solves. It’s not Smart Growth; it’s just growth.”
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