Fire Dangers Loom Over Proposed Houses Near Yorba Linda

A wildfire consumes a home during the Freeway Complex Fire in 2008.

Ed Schumann

A wildfire consumes a home during the Freeway Complex Fire in 2008.

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Situated high above Yorba Linda, but not within its city limits, lie two steep properties poised for bulldozing. Next Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors will decide to approve or deny Esperanza Hills, the larger of two controversial projects.

The developers of Esperanza Hills and Cielo Vista have proposed over 450 houses on these slopes, which have burned three times.

Fire science tells us if the land has burned before, it will burn again. The Freeway Complex Fire in 2008 not only damaged or destroyed over 360 homes and businesses, including both sites, but it also forced more than 40,000 evacuees onto gridlocked streets as the conflagration closed major escape routes.

The county released the final environmental impact report on the 340-unit Esperanza Hills project just before 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 5This was the second year in a row the County has forced residents, agencies and the public to read, understand and respond to complex and lengthy (1,800 page) documents over the holidays.

Then, the county Planning Commission hastily called a special meeting for Dec. 17. Due to inadequate public notice, the commission could take no action.

Rarely has a public process so blatantly tried to keep the public out. Apparently unwilling to conduct appropriate due diligence, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended project approval in January, despite their concerns.  Instead, they urged county supervisors to roll up their sleeves and dig into the disquieting details.

The final environmental document, while fraught with complexity, nevertheless can’t even get the fundamentals right.

Let’s start with the map that sets the stage from which all other analyses flow. Despite repeatedly being provided with an accurate map, the county stubbornly refuses to correct theirs.

The project basically has eight sides; Chino Hills State Park borders four of them, but the county only shows two adjacent boundaries.

By leaving off half of the boundary with the state park, county planners disguise the fact that the wildland-urban interface (WUI) is massive for this project. In fact, Esperanza Hills is completely surrounded by wildland.

The Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) has repeatedly discouraged adding houses at the WUI. Thousands of acres of the state park will always lie to the north, east and south. It will always be wild land. Esperanza Hills and Cielo Vista will always be vulnerable to fires from the east, the path of the Santa Ana winds.

OCFA acknowledged in its after action report that existing adjacent neighborhoods experienced gridlock during the Freeway Complex Fire. According to residents, they fled in cars three abreast on two lane streets to escape the wind-driven flames.

When residents got to the main arterial (Yorba Linda Blvd.), they hit gridlock.  To help his neighbors, one resident manned an intersection as his house burned. Unbelievably, the Esperanza Hills project calls for a winding road that leads evacuees into the direction of the flame front.

We have been told by OCFA that the 2008 evacuation problem was threefold. The first problem was the residents themselves – they all left at the same time. According to the OCFA report, the flame front moved at a rate of 14 football field lengths a minute. Were evacuees supposed to draw straws?

The next problem OCFA reported was that there was no written evacuation plan. But the written plan for the proposed projects calls for an “orderly” evacuation that will take up to two hours. That means every sheriff on duty on every shift needs to be exquisitely familiar with the plan and enough of them need to be around to enact it.

The third problem OCFA identified was that the fire occurred on a Saturday when everyone was home. Yet most of us are home most of the time.  We are generally at work only nine of 24 hours a day.

Near gridlock already exists on the 91 freeway in the morning and evening rush hours. How will the evacuation plan work when people are not at home but rather are clogging the roads en route to and from work?

It’s no accident that this property has not been developed. Adequate access requires a road through city parkland down a rare inland year-round stream.

It is further challenged by location, topography, configuration, operating oil wells, a major water pipeline, two major gas lines, two 500-kilovolt Edison transmission lines, the Whittier Elsinore earthquake fault and soils known to slide.

Will Orange County taxpayers become liable like Yorba Linda taxpayers were when the city compensated homeowners who lost their homes due to slippage?

We have been told these lands were always planned for housing. But the Freeway Complex Fire proved the now-obvious danger of constrained capacity on local streets.

So are we capable of allowing new information in? Can we change our mind? Do plans on paper have more validity and credibility than the real life experience of thousands of people?

Knowing what we know now, will we put more people’s property and lives at risk?

Esperanza Hills’ developers bought this land knowing full well it was zoned agriculture with an oil overlay and designated open space. They are not owed a zone change or a general plan amendment to allow for residential development. The county does not have to do their bidding.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, in whose district this project lies, is our hope. If anyone can bring common sense to this critical planning decision, he can. 

Since being elected to the 3rd District supervisorial seat, he has made inroads at restoring trust by trying to right earlier bad planning decisions, like those in North Tustin and Trabuco Canyon. These reversals were applauded by many who have long observed the county’s predisposition to saying yes to every development scheme that is concocted.

Concerned local residents, State Park supporters, and the county’s citizens at large are looking for his leadership in saying no to Esperanza Hills and Cielo Vista. Let’s restore sanity to Orange County planning.

Next Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, where a decision on the project is scheduled, starts at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration (map).

Ahead of the meeting, a county-sponsored forum is scheduled for Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda.

Claire Schlotterbeck is the executive director of Hills for Everyone and serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

  • MatrixHater

    This synopsis captures the true insanity and danger to human life that these developments present. But we live in an age of greed and the tens of millions of dollars these developments can generate now and in future taxes may simply be too much for politicians to resist. Will it be profits over people? We shall soon find out.

  • I agree with you. This project is dangerous and has many glaring issues. I feel that Supervisor Spitzer is smart enough to see that the residents don’t want this project and that the EIR has huge deficiencies.