…Same as the Old Development
“San Diego Country Estates was one of the worst development decisions of all time in San Diego, in terms of harm to nature and risk to people from wildfire,” David Hogan says hyperbolically. He’s still wearing his dark sunglasses, and we’ve driven back down through Ramona and headed south on San Vicente Road. “It’s distant from the urban core,” he says. “It sticks out like a sore thumb in the Cleveland National Forest, and its exposure to fire risk is enormous. Yet there’s thousands of people who live here.”
San Vicente Road — which turns into Ramona Oaks Road — is the only access to San Diego Country Estates. That route was gridlocked for hours with evacuees from the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 Witch Fire. The residents were essentially trapped here as the fires burned around them.
“Way too many people live out here in an area that doesn’t have the resources to support them,” Hogan says. “And that’s to say nothing of fire risk and the fact that there’s only one road in and out.”
San Diego Country Estates pops up out of a nowhere of mountains and valleys. Suddenly, it’s all golf courses, tennis courts, fountains, green lawns, lush trees, thick shrubs, and large houses.
“A part of me likes to think that this is the bad planning of the past,” Hogan says. “But it’s not true. Right now, the City of Santee is pressing forward with its approval for a massive new subdivision called Fanita Ranch, and it’ll be exactly the same situation as this, surrounded by public lands. So nobody’s learned their lessons from this.”
Because San Diego Country Estates is here — and it was built back in the 1970s — the forest service is compelled to subject the forest to fuels-reduction activities nearby. “There’s a din from the County Board of Supervisors,” says Hogan, “especially when there’s fires, that the forest service isn’t doing enough to get rid of all of that brush. But ‘brush’ is a pejorative term. And the brush that they’re referring to is an intensely valuable native ecosystem called ‘chaparral and coastal sage scrub’ that in turn provides incredible value not just for wildlife and plants but for people. These shrublands are what prevent all the hills from washing down into our reservoirs and water supplies.”
Hogan, who often seems to mint phrases that sound as though they would work as bumper stickers, then says, “The brush is treated as public enemy number one. But the real enemy is bad land-use planning.”
San Diego Country Estates winds up San Vicente Road and branches off onto a series of arteries, all of which run into the mountains and then become dead ends. Ironically, many of the roads here are named for the wilderness that was bulldozed so that the roads could be built: Ramona Oaks, Thornbush, Sage Hill.
“When they name their roads, I would love to see the developers of these subdivisions be honest for once,” Hogan says. He parks his truck along a dead end. “Ugly Stucco Home Way. More Purple Iceplant Drive.”
Out at the end of Ramona Oaks Road, the mountains of the Cleveland National Forest recede beneath a blue sky and blazing sun. There’s almost no sound out here, except for the wind across your ears.
To walk out into the scrubland, Hogan takes along a telescoping metal walking stick. “For rattlesnakes,” he says. “To let them know you’re coming.”
This area at the end of the last road of San Diego Country Estates burned in the Cedar Fire but has recovered beautifully. In most places, bright greens have taken over the grays and the blacks. Cuyamaca Peak and Julian Peak are visible in the distance, with Eagle Peak looming front and center.
Hogan explains that the chaparral ecosystem actually benefits from fires, but only from fires that start up infrequently. Before humankind, the only way for fire to start in the wild was a lightning strike. It may have been a hundred years between burns in a wilderness area, plenty of time for the place to become robust and established.
But now we have power lines that fall in high winds, cigarette butts flying out of car windows, kids playing with matches, hikers lighting campfires, and on and on.
When these places burn every few years, the plants that replace the old growth are usually exotic weeds and grasses that aren’t indigenous — though they do grow more easily than the native plants. These plants don’t play a part in the natural order of wildlife in Southern California. This shifting of ecosystems is called “type conversion.”
“The forest service is actually pursuing type conversion here,” Hogan says incredulously. “They have a project called the San Vicente Community Defense Zone, and they want to do heavy-handed vegetation treatment here to protect these houses from fires. Now, it’s really important to do vegetation management right near where people live, but this is a very poorly designed project that’s not right at the edge of where people live. It’s out in the forest, where it provides very few values for protecting people, and it does tremendous harm to nature.”
Hogan says a big part of what the Center for Biological Diversity is doing now is trying to educate people about creating a narrow defense zone around where they live and leaving the rest of the shrublands alone.
“We don’t know whether these hillsides will ever recover,” Hogan says, again waving his very large hand across the range of all that can be seen. “Those hills have burned twice in the last 4 years, and the hillside that we’re on has burned six or seven times in the last 50 years. And that’s just too much.”
The abutting juxtapositions of San Diego Country Estates and the natural landscape that surround it are striking. A litter of man-made colors and shapes — rectangular oranges and metallic corners — stand among the rounded gray rocks and rolling green contours.