San Diego City Officials Are Gambling With Our Neighborhoods by Allowing Dense Development in High-Risk Urban Fire Zones

by on August 24, 2023 · 24 comments

in Environment, History, San Diego

By Bonnie Kutch

Imagine being awaken by the smell of smoke in the dead of night.  You look out your window and see flames coming toward your home.  You get up, quickly dress, herd your family members and pets to the car, and grab what few possessions you can on your way out.

You reach the only exit road, where you’re met with gridlock.  Cars aren’t moving, because hundreds of high-density housing units have been added to your neighborhood, without roads being added or even widened.  And because all these new rental units have been allowed to be built without on-premise resident parking, the streets are lined with parked cars, making it impossible to get around the line of traffic.  Worse yet, the city has just reduced the main thoroughfare to one lane in each direction to create bike lanes.

This isn’t merely an imagined scenario, but rather a probable disaster in the making if the City of San Diego continues its push for high-density housing and dense ADU development in high-risk fire zones, particularly on or near our many canyons.

San Diego’s unique topography sets the stage for damaging wildfires, given the amount of overgrown vegetation that has been fed by our heavy winter rains and neglected by city maintenance crews.  Flammable vegetation on steep canyon slopes burns faster upward, and many older neighborhoods sit at the top of these canyons.

The 1985 Normal Heights fire, which destroyed 76 houses and damaged 57 more, burned over 300 acres before crews were able to get it under control.  Flames raced up the canyon from Mission Valley so quickly, they overtook the neighborhood like one giant explosion.

The inferno that just unfolded on Maui, killing more than 100 people and counting, should be a major wakeup call to San Diego city officials, who have turned a blind eye to the real-life implications of cramming thousands of high-density housing units into our urban high-risk fire zones.  Fire-Rescue Department officials so far have been absent from community plan update meetings and city council meetings, where concerns about fire safety often have been raised.

The fear of a pending wildfire disaster is especially high among residents of University City, one of the many local communities currently going through a community plan update. The city has proposed adding 32,500 housing units to its existing 27,000 to accommodate another 80,000 residents within its small, 7.348-square-mile footprint,  despite the latest regional forecast by the San Diego Association of Governments that reports that the entire San Diego region is expected to have just 40,000 more people than it has today by the year 2060.

Residents of the single-family neighborhoods in south University City have good reason to feel particularly vulnerable, since they are surrounded on all sides by Rose and San Clemente canyons and unmaintained open space.  The city has proposed to considerably up-zone both shopping centers as well as other commercial properties along Governor Drive to accommodate high-density apartment buildings, while also reducing Governor Drive to one lane in each direction to provide bike lanes for the handful of bicyclists that would use them.

With Governor Drive being the only escape route, evacuating south University City in the event of a wildfire would be catastrophic and possibly fatal to the thousands of families living there.

Lack of substantial water pressure was a known factor in the Maui disaster, just as it was in the Normal Heights fire.  How can our city officials expect water pressure to be sufficient in neighborhoods where so many new rental units are being built, without adding the infrastructure needed to support the increased population?

When the nation’s No. 1 and N. 4 property and casualty insurance companies, State Farm and Allstate, confirmed that they would stop issuing new home insurance policies in California, it might have come as a shock but shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Insurers have been retreating from high-risk, high-loss markets for years after catastrophic events. The exodus is yet another sign of the impact that climate change is having in the state.

In San Diego, it’s predicted we will have wetter winters causing more vegetation overgrowth, followed by more intense heat waves and droughts.  More wildfires can be expected.

Where is the logic in cramming more high-density apartment buildings and bonus ADUs in single-family neighborhoods that fall within high-risk fire zones?  More, where is the concern for the protection and safety of residents’ lives?

Our City of San Diego government officials are playing with fire, with nary a thought to the enormous risk.

Bonnie Kutch is a resident of and homeowner in south University City; founder of UC Neighbors for Responsible Growth, aka UC PEEPS; and founder of San Diegans for Responsible Growth.


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Danna Givot August 24, 2023 at 3:08 pm

In 2010, the San Diego Office of the City Auditor did a “Performance Audit
of the Fire Prevention Activities Within the City of San Diego” and found “Significant Opportunities for Improvements Exist to Mitigate the Risk of
Loss of Life and Property Resulting from Fire.” Most of the recommendations in that Audit never came to fruition or did so only briefly. (

In July of this year, the City Auditor published another such report ( concluding that “The City lacks comprehensive brush management oversight, causing inconsistent and potentially ineffective brush management efforts by some departments with significant amounts of land in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones.” The report says:

1. Fire-Rescue Does Not Proactively Monitor or Inspect City-Owned Land for Compliance with Brush Management Regulations.

2. Fire-Rescue does not maintain a comprehensive list of City-owned lands subject to brush management regulations.

3. The lack of coordination and oversight has resulted in inconsistent brush
management efforts on City-owned land in Very High Fire Hazard Severity

4. Fire-Rescue acknowledged that its involvement in
monitoring brush management on City-owned lands has been
limited due to resource and staffing constraints. Therefore, with
limited resources available, the department has prioritized proactive
inspections of private property.

5. While this approach may help reduce wildfire risk, it is not
sufficient to meet the City’s Municipal Code requirements to conduct brush management on City-owned lands.

Also, many of the problems identified in the 2010 Audit persist in the 2023 Audit.

Meanwhile, Eric Dargan, San Diego’s Chief Operating Officer, responded on July 13, 2023, agreeing with the Audit findings. However, Mr. Dargan accepted the Audit recommendations “contingent upon the availability of resources.” Further, most of the recommendations would be considered, analyzed, reviewed, etc. in fiscal year 2024 with the target of “Fiscal Year 2025 for any budget requests” or “Fiscal Year 2025, contingent upon resource allocation.” This means it is unclear when, or even if, these recommendations would be executed, since they are contingent upon funding.

Bottom line, there is no firm commitment of any additional funds to make brush management or proactive fire prevention as recommended by the July 2023 Audit a priority for the City of San Diego at any point. The City found the funds to buy 101 Ash Street, but cannot commit to funding brush management on City-owned lands as required by Municipal Code! These priorities do not reflect the best interests of the residents of San Diego, for whom safety is paramount.

At the same time the City is shirking its brush management responsibilities in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs), the Development Services Department continues to issue building permits adding excessive housing density in these same high risk fire zones via the ADU Bonus Program and Complete Communities. There should be a moratorium on building permits in VHFHSZs, especially for such high-density housing, until such time that the City is fully caught up with brush management in these areas, establishes realistic evacuation plans for the large numbers of new residents (many intended to be without cars), and ensures there is adequate water pressure for purposes of extinguishing fires at each of these sites.

No one wants a repeat of the 1985 Normal Heights fire, but that is what we are facing without responsible brush management, realistic evacuation plans and adequate water supplies and pressure for fire abatement. Fires in Maui, Washington State, Canada, Tenerife and Greece should be ample warning. It is time for the Mayor and City Council to make the health and safety of current San Diego residents their top priority!


Geoff Page August 29, 2023 at 11:02 am

Wow, great information, thanks for sharing and publicizing this problem.


UCGal August 25, 2023 at 9:10 am

Bonnie, thanks for bringing this to our attention. You’re obviously going to sell your house and move out of somewhere you find so dangerous right?


Frank Gormlie August 25, 2023 at 9:29 am

UCGal, that’s a spiteful thing to say to someone who is trying to warn San Diego residents about how local pols are literally playing with fire. (AR still in college, “UCGal”?)


Bonnie Kutch August 25, 2023 at 3:40 pm

Thank you, Frank. It’s a shame that Circulate San Diego doesn’t take the time to train the group of young UCSD student activists it so cleverly leverages to support their pro-development agenda on behalf of their building industry clients. These young students should be doing research of their own, without letting themselves be manipulated, which would allow them to reply with intelligence and hard facts rather than mean-spirited barbs. It’s a missed opportunity for them to learn more about current issues. If they did study the issue, they would realize they’re shooting themselves in the foot since large equity firms such as Blackstone Development, Black Rock and J.P. Morgan Chase are lining up to buy the new luxury rentals and raise rents, while taking single-family homes off the market. Where will that leave members of the Next Generation? Stuck in a never-ending cycle of renting, with the dream of actual home ownership out of reach.


sealintheSelkirks August 25, 2023 at 9:18 pm

Yep, since there is obviously no safe place from wildfires on this planet anywhere as anyone who has been paying attention this summer has most definitely noticed… At least I would hope they noticed! Is this a ‘Duh’ moment for this woman?

What UCGal, don’t think a Lahaina Fire could happen in San Diego? Pack ’em in even tighter, all that nice dry burnable materials, and then get a major fire happening somewhere with the right direction screaming Santa Ana winds at 60mph heading for the ocean (just like Lahaina) and you easily could see parts of the city burn right to the beach…

It ain’t all just about earthquake preparedness, ya know?
And I know this first-hand as I’ve been buried under smoke from local blazes coming from three different directions this week, one of which (the Elk/Chatteroy Oregon Fire) burned through a neighborhood where a mechanic friend of mine lived and worked. Past tense.

And that’s on top of the Canadian Kelowna wildfire smoke cloud that jumped the border and buried us before these lit off.

Highest level of Air Quality Alert’ and ‘Hazardous Air Alert’ which is the worst air quality imaginable. Thousands of acres with hundreds of home/businesses/structures wiped out up here this week in multiple wildfires.

Welcome to the Blowtorchocene Era.

I stood outside in these very dark mountains and pointed a narrow-beam flashlight up and it looked like a blizzard there was so much ash falling. Eyes instantly full of crap that took repeated rinses to clear it all out. It’s been inside with the shop air purifier/filter and swamp cooler/floor fans to control just from what is leaking through the cracks of the house. I worry about letting the dog and cat out as they don’t wear N95s…I don’t let them out for long.

At least San Diego has the money (but likely not the political intelligence judging by present circumstances) to be better prepared for extreme events because, if this summer has taught anything around the world, it’s that anything can burn.



Geoff Page August 29, 2023 at 11:05 am

Man, I feel for you, seal, I hope things clear up pretty soon.


sealintheSelkirks August 29, 2023 at 1:11 pm

Yep, I agree but it’s still really damn dry up here with ongoing fires. Twenty years ago the first frost used to always be right around Labor Day. Not any more.

Thermometer read 100’F at 2pm yesterday, moon was still red last night with smoke way up high tinting the atmosphere so I know it still isn’t healthy but at least it is much clearer than it was a few days ago. I’m still wearing an N95 when I go out because at night the smoke is forced down to the ground with the colder air so you can see it in the flashlight. Crap floating everywhere in it still though I can’t smell it during the day. But I know it’s there. Noses just de-sensitize, ya know?

The closest to me, the Elk/Roy ‘Oregon’ fire about 20 miles s/se has burned down 126 homes and 258 outbuildings including a mechanic friend’s family home and shop, and was 35% contained a couple days ago. Still getting smoke from it depending on wind direction, and the Medical Lake Gray fire 35 miles south that is upwind during the day down-valley has leveled 240 homes and 86 outbuildings. Both have one death, and both are over 10,000 acres as of 27Aug.

It’s really good not to be under the massive Kelowana Canada fire smoke cloud, though. That helped put our air quality to a ‘Hazardous’ level number, mindboggling 635! Literally don’t breathe, don’t go outside.
And this could easily happen in San Diego. As a kid I remember the fires where Santee grew up and covered with concrete, asphalt, and buildings. Same with the canyons that are now UC where my dad moved to. Screw that, I stayed on the beaches!!

Now I’m way up here in a mountainous forest…burn zone. Boy was that a smart move, eh? Snark! But I do love where I am….



Geoff Page August 29, 2023 at 5:05 pm

Hang in there, seal.


Will August 27, 2023 at 9:04 am

Is endless sprawl and automobiles the answer? I went to Mission Beach yesterday and could have walked there faster than driving due to traffic and especially parking. Increased density puts more people closer to places they want to be in general and allows for density that better facilitates mass transit.

The bike lanes that get bemoaned could actually help you escape a blaze. The Paradise fire killed so many people in part due to a massive traffic jam of desperate people fleeing. Then you have a chief reason for the new normal of gnarly weather everywhere due to automobile emissions and other pollution. The fire safety argument against density seems just as disingenuous as the tRump people worried about birds being killed by wind turbines while cheering for scarcely regulated oil exploration and pipelines.

We should be building condos more than megaplex apartments to better allow people to own real estate. But then if you really wanted to make homeownership more affordable there are easier fixes by revamping Prop 13 to better balance tax burdens for first time homebuyers.


chris schultz August 28, 2023 at 9:02 am

The bike lanes that get bemoaned could actually help you escape a blaze. The Paradise fire killed so many people in part due to a massive traffic jam of desperate people fleeing.

That would seem to be an argument against closing down streets and bottlenecking the exits.

But then if you really wanted to make homeownership more affordable there are easier fixes by revamping Prop 13 to better balance tax burdens for first time homebuyers.

I’d be curious as to how you would revamp prop 13 and how that would make ownership affordable? The property tax rate is 1%. 10K for 1 Mil value.


Bonnie Kutch August 28, 2023 at 9:18 am

I don’t understand how bike lanes could help us escape when they’re not wide enough for a car and there are so many parked cars along the curb. On my street alone, we have 14 families with small children and babies, dogs and cats. They can’t escape on bikes. I do agree that the country needs to do something to make home buying more doable for younger people, but I’m not sure about Prop 13. It didn’t help me, a senior, because when I moved, the price of the house I purchased was more than what I sold my previous home for so I pay more than $10,000 a year in property taxes. The solution to the housing affordability issue is to redevelop underutilized commercial and industrial properties, which already have the necessary infrastructure in place; and second, for the government to put a stop to letting large equity firms buy up rental properties and raising rental rates. Too, rather than creating an overabundance of apartment building, build more for-sale condos and townhomes. By all means, developers should not be scaping perfectly good starter homes off the market so they can build more rentals; that just raises the value of real homes and makes them even more unaffordable.


kh August 28, 2023 at 2:06 pm

Just get rid of Prop 13 entirely and replace it with a homeowner’s exemption that isn’t a joke, and is relative to the local market prices. The current homeowners exemption is worth about $75 a year, what a joke! Meanwhile, on 2nd homes the entire tax bill can be deducted. Why do they get better tax benefits?


Bonnie Kutch August 28, 2023 at 3:09 pm

I tend to agree with you, kh!


Bonnie Kutch August 27, 2023 at 9:51 am

Had San Diego been planned for public transportation originally and served as an effective means of getting around town, I agree it would be ideal. But unlike New York or somewhere that it makes sense, San Diego is far too spread out and, besides, MTS is broke. People will never begin using public transportation here rather than cars; instead, they are moving to EVs. Escaping a wildfire on bike might be the ticket if you’re young, athletic and single, but what about seniors and families with children and pets? How are they going to hop on a bike? Dense development in severe fire risk zones most certainly raises the danger of people being trapped in a fire, as does taking away car lanes on roads that serve as the only escape route. In areas like Normal Heights and University City, it would be catastrophic.


kh August 28, 2023 at 2:10 pm

It’s irrelevant to me how many acres San Diego occupies. What’s important is how far are people commuting on average? If we had population centers in enough proximity to our job centers, people would have better options.

In OB for example, almost nobody working there can afford to live there. Every morning and every evening is a migration of ten thousand people, on roads not designed for it. Traffic is a mess, parking is awful… people aren’t doing it because it’s convenient, they’re doing it because the mass transit options are far worse.


Bonnie Kutch August 28, 2023 at 3:15 pm

That’s an excellent point, kh, but I don’t know how you would fix that situation unless we had a very well planned public transit system. We don’t and never will. You would think that, with the price of gas these days, people would be more deliberate about taking jobs closer to home.


chris schultz August 29, 2023 at 7:52 am

Dense development. Streets turned into bike lanes. People relying on mass transit. Sounds like hell in a wildfire.


Chris August 29, 2023 at 8:34 am

“unless we had a very well planned public transit system. We don’t and never will.”

And that’s what needs to change. I’m so sick of the arguments that no one uses and won’t use public transit. People need to re-think and start wanting their tax dollars to improve it rather than give up on it.

“You would think that, with the price of gas these days, people would be more deliberate about taking jobs closer to home.”

And that goes back to the affordability issue.


Geoff Page August 29, 2023 at 11:14 am

I don’t understand why we can’t have a good bus system. I traveled all over Mexico and Central America on buses. You could get a bus anywhere. They had first, second, and third class buses. They would pick people up on the side of the road. The reason it works, of course, is that many people have no other good choice. Still, I think people here would use a system like that if it were provided to them.


Vern August 29, 2023 at 10:05 am

It be something (albeit possibly tragic) seeing the “young, athletic & single” folks hopping on their bicycles and riding (somewhere) to escape a massive fire (or flooding), then riding back (on bicycles) to their domiciles to pick up the pieces.


Geoff Page August 29, 2023 at 10:59 am

That one made me laugh out loud, Vern, thanks.


sealintheSelkirks August 28, 2023 at 1:38 pm

Chris Schultz: What, you think the bike lanes won’t be jam packed? As for closing streets, the ones that lived are the ones that ignored the cops and drove around them, or abandoned their vehicles and ran like hell.

Bonnie: When the family fell apart in 1970 my dad (MBHS teacher) bought the 6946 Haworth St. house that hung over the lip of the canyon facing west. This was before the canyons were completely filled in with houses, when deer and coyote thrived down below the backyard fence. When he died in ’94 and I went down to sort through the house and sell it etc etc I couldn’t believe how filled-in the entire suburb was.

I can’t imagine it now because the picture in my head is 30 years old. Add in 32,000 MORE nice dry ready-to-burn tinder piles (which is what modern OSB-built asphalt shingle housing is) and you’ve got…well, you know what you’ve got! Based on what I saw then a destabilizing climate ‘Lahaina’ type wildfire (most likely during a Santa Ana) that runs west, jumps I-5, blows up the backside of La Jolla while funneling north towards Sorrento Valley and south through Rose Canyon just boggles the imagination. At 60mph!!

But then we really don’t need an imagination since it’s happening all over the world in country after country that’s splashed on the internet as it happens… Greece, Spain, Canada, Asia, it’s everywhere and we can SEE what it’s going to look like. Fires so hot they melt metal and burn a mile a minute. How fast can a human run? What’s the record, a 4 minute mile?

My old partner that lives in the Islands sent me a link to a Washington dog search team interview and the dogs can’t even find enough of the ‘missing’ (what a term for having been cremated to powder) to trigger their incredible sense of smell. Those folks aren’t missing.

How many are going to get out of University City with canyon fires running on all sides and both sides of Hwy 52 canyon burning with flames running up both bordering hillsides… And there are a LOT more people living in that area than Lahaina where one at least could jump in the ocean but then a lot of people suffocated from the lack of 02 left in the superheated air that roared over the water.

All a matter of luck I’m afraid. Without the costly preparation that hopefully will never be needed, it will be like Clint Eastwood pointing that 44 Magnum at your face and asking “Do you feel lucky, punk?” I guess the city has other priorities, like millions of dollars worth of spy cameras on light poles. You know, important stuff.



Bonnie Kutch August 29, 2023 at 12:38 pm

It’s a horrible picture you paint, Seal, but all too realistic. University City currently has 27,000 homes; the city is proposing to add another 33,000 to house 80,000 more people! They’ve ignored the environmental impacts of noise, egress, and pollution as well as the need for supporting infrastructure such as roads, schools, parks, recreation facilities and fire & police service. The city is putting developers and equity firms above the safety and welfare of residents who currently live in University City and pay high property taxes.


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