One Tree Too Many: Borrego Objects Ordinance
Last updated 2/24/2023 at 11:31am
Borregans continued to voice their opposition to trimming palm tree skirts at the second public meeting with CalFire Battalion Chief Alex Elward, on the County’s Defensible Space Ordinance, at the library on February 7.
There were a number of changes in Chief Elward’s presentation due to outrage on aspects of the Ordinance at the first meeting, and a visitation to view aspects of Borrego’s unique vegetation and environment with local biology and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park experts.
First Chief Elward announced all of the Borrego citations had been mailed and reiterated that there would be no further action expected until July to give recipients time to accommodate the removal of dead trees, vegetation, trash, wood piles, and other combustible items within 100-feet of a structure.
One question from the audience was about noticing home or property owners of the inspection. According to Elward, the inspectors go to the front of the house and base the citations on what they can observe without entering back yards, or contacting owners.
He once again explained that the county would work with people on funding and compromises such as cutting palm tree skirts only up to six feet from the ground, as a start.
Also, a concern that the application of the Ordinance was the result of the transition of the Borrego Springs Fire Protection District to the San Diego County Fire Protection District (SDCFPD), was laid to rest with the explanation that the timing of the two were only coincidental and had nothing to do with the change.
“We have been citing unincorporated communities throughout the county for the past four years, and Borrego’s time to comply simply came around. It had nothing to do with the consolidation,” Chief Elward explained.
Next the emphasis on trimming palm trees was replaced with clarification that the ordinance applied to the removal of all dead and dying vegetation, debris and all other potentially combustible items or fire fuel within 100-feet of a structure.
“The purpose of the ordinance is two-fold: to save lives and to ensure the safety of firefighters trying to save a structure fire, which might be someone’s home,” Chief Elward stated. “ Our job is to save lives, and even if it’s just one life, it’s important to me.”
He also emphasized numerous times, he was only the messenger on behalf of the county, he was not the decision maker.
“Due to the increase in once unimaginable fires in California, the state has taken a strong preventative posture. The county is obliged to follow the state laws, and in addition added some supplemental measures specific to the county in the county’s ordinance. The county woke up after the Cedar and Witch Creek fires, once considered the largest wildfires in the state and nation, and, like the state, saw a greater need for prevention,” he said. “As the fires become larger, consuming 19,000 structures and 86 lives, as in the 2020-Northern California Paradise (Camp) Fire, it became clear that the Drought, climate change and other circumstances fires were going to continue to get larger and more dangerous.”
He once again covered the elements of the ordinance and opened the meeting for questions and comments.
Comments began with a criticism of the introduction of local wildfires as, “We experienced.” An objection was made that Borrego is not a “we” in San Diego County, especially when it comes to wildfires, rather Borrego is in the most unique and distinctive desert environs that exist nowhere else in the county.
“Borrego is its own entity, and many of the removal requirements are generic; and do not fit the differences in the community. Borrego Springs is an extension of a desert park with many native plants and wildlife not found in other areas of the county and are considered rare and extremely valuable to conserve and protect.”
For example, Borrego is not like Julian, Valley Center, Alpine or Warner Springs. It was also pointed out that the fire map that designated Borrego Springs to be of “Moderate Fire Danger” was inaccurate and really should show Borrego to be of “low, or ‘no wildfire danger.’”
People assured Chief Elward that there has never been a wildfire, and almost no structure fires in Borrego’s history. Structure fires that occurred were the result of the fire initiated within the home and not from the exterior sources or dying vegetation.
People felt this history alone should exempt Borrego as a possible wildfire region.
Chief Elward again, emphasized the ordinance was not just about wildfires, but single structure fires.
Others pointed out that the native vegetation in the desert is not combustible fire fuel, like sick oak trees or dead firs in the mountain and other regions of the north and east county. A comment was made that some of the desert plants go dormant and appear dead, only to be revived by rain, making it difficult for inspectors unfamiliar with the cycles and life of native plants.
Sicco Rood showed pictures of the Palm Canyon Oasis fire, which is believed to be caused by humans. The slides revealed that the surrounding vegetation did not catch fire, and the burn did not spread beyond the palms. The lesson was, seemingly, that there is not enough combustible fuel in Borrego or the park to keep a fire alive and burning past the source.
The focus of discussion, besides the opposition to even including Borrego Springs in a map as a potential wildfire source, was removing or trimming palm tree skirts of dead fronds.
The most poignant and meaningful objections to removing the lower palm fronds that the form skirts around the tree, related to the palms’ contributions to protecting numerous rare species and other desert wildlife that take shelter or build nests in the lush cover of the dead fronds.
Roadrunners, Borrego’s iconic meat-eating bird, in addition to endangered species like bees and bats, which build hives and nests are among the few creatures that make the fronds home. Many reptiles and underground insects also seek the protection of the cool ground underneath the skirts. During the increasing episodes of extreme heat in the expanding summer months, due to the Drought and climate change, the skirts create a cool and damp shelter for many species trying to escape the heated ground temperature.
As one speaker commented, when the air is 100 degrees, the ground temperature is 130 degrees. There is always a thirty degree increase in the soil exposed to the sun, especially during periods of extreme heat. When the ground does not even effectively cool at night, it’s a death sentence for many of the life forms that inhabit the desert. While residents don’t walk their dogs on the hot asphalt during many summer months for fear of their pets burning their feet, many beneficial and unique species have only the cool areas beneath the skirts of palm fronds to survive. This is particularly pertinent given the Borrego Sun’s recent article on the massive extinction of the non-human life on the planet and a previous article about how 40% of the native vegetation, including cactus, assumed able to absorb heat, are not surviving episodes of extreme heat.
A significant comment from the audience was that people who live in Borrego moved here to enjoy many natural experiences that can no longer be found in urban areas. These include the presence of wildlife and the unique fragile beauty of desert vegetation and wildflowers. The town, they claimed, is an extension of the wilderness Desert Park and, as such, a place to enjoy the wonders found in San Diego County’s only desert temperate zone.
There was an argument that palm trees, not the shaved landscape varieties, have evolved to be part of the natural preservation of desert life through the skirts of discarded dead fronds, separating from the living palms branches.
Besides removing Borrego from the Ordinance, a number of compromises were discussed including, the option of an appeal by a property owner relative to the palm trimming, to have review by a team of county biologists to confirm a tree’s value to local conservation.
Another, was shortening the 100-foot designation to 30-feet or less for skirted palms; and another was to ask the Board of Supervisors to review the Ordinance as it related to Borrego Springs, and specifically palms, taking into account evidence from biologists, park rangers, and others regarding the benefit and conservative value of the trees’ skirts, as well as the apparent lack of sparks spreading to other vegetation.
A dominant theme was asking Chief Elward to report Borrego’s concerns up the chain to his superiors, which he assured the group he was doing. However, Elward suggested, people should not get their hopes up for a change to the ordinance without it coming from the top level of decision makers – the Board of Supervisors. And, he reminded the audience, aspects of the Ordinance are not county law, but state law.