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Thursday afternoon, May 15, as the Cocos fire in San Marcos rushed into west Escondido, residents who'd been watching the eerie-colored sky and sneezing against the airborne ash finally got the evacuation order they'd been expecting.

Kimberly Panno had already left her west Escondido home, near the Palomar Medical Center, taking her daughter and four dogs to safety at her mother's house. She returned to the ridge about a tenth of a mile above her home to check on her husband, Randy Panno, who had told his wife more than two hours earlier that he had also left their home of more than a decade.

There he was, going back and forth between classic cars in the driveway of the home. From the ridge about 150 feet above the Hidden Hills valley — between the evacuated Stone Brewery and the medical center, where security staff was on high alert — Panno watched her husband finally choose the Corvette to drive away from their home. She didn't immediately call him, though she could have.

"I'm going to be giving him a strong message," she said. "He told me two hours ago that he evacuated and there he is."

She pointed to the houses around hers, each on about an acre of land, and to the sides of the bowl that are owned by a developer. Of the eight or so properties, only the Panno homestead and a neighbor’s had been cleared of brush. The neighbors' eucalyptus trees drape over the Panno home.

"That's my issue. We work our butts off to fireproof our place — at the cost of not having great-looking landscape, and then the neighbors make it possible for our home to burn up," Panno said. "Nobody enforces the clearing rules. So we just hope we get lucky and the neighbors don't burn."

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Visduh May 17, 2014 @ 8:30 a.m.

You are looking for some consistency, and there is precious little of that in matters of brush clearing. For starters, you are faced with the fire department demanding that native vegetation be removed, and environmentalists howling that doing that removes habitat for local fauna, especially birds. If your structure is close to a property line, the owner of the adjacent property is responsible for the clearing. But in some areas, it is nearly impossible to oblige cooperation.

Some years ago, late 80's to early 90's, I owned a 2/3-acre vacant residential lot in San Marcos. On two occasions the residents of nearby homes sicced the fire department on me for brush abatement. Unfortunately, what existed on that parcel wasn't native chaparral. It was some weeds and opportunistic brushy stuff that posed little danger. So, the first time, I hired laborers to clear the junk, and had a trash hauler take the stuff away. A few years later it happened again. That time some laurel sumac had taken root, along with the other junk, and that time the FD told me that I didn't have to remove the laurel sumac. It was "habitat." Hookay.

But during that time, I used to look at those mountainsides south of highway 78 and above the new CSUSM campus. Nobody was expecting the landowner to clear THAT area, dozens of acres of unbroken, mature native chaparral. Later on when we started hiking on those trails up on Double Peak and down to Discovery Lake, it was obvious that the brush was very old, and ready to burn if a fire should start. That area escaped being burned in the Harmony fire about 20 years ago, and had another two decades to get even more dangerous.

As a society, we still haven't figured out how to prevent these fires from burning people out of their homes. Under bad conditions, no number of fire engines can stop the fires for sure. The politicians keep patting themselves on the back for how much we have "learned", but in fact, we learn very little.


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