For years, people warned county supervisors they were approving hundreds of homes on hills that had burned in a wildfire a few years earlier.
The hills would burn again, they cautioned.
It only took a couple years for those predictions to come true.
In October, just two years after Orange County supervisors gave final approval to the 340-home Esperanza Hills project north of Yorba Linda, the Blue Ridge fire swept through about half of the land for the proposed homes, according to the official fire map. The land also was scorched in the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire, according to the same map and a court ruling.
Editors Note: This three-day series takes a look at the ongoing risks for many Orange County residents who are living near wildfire zones that are burning more often with each passing year. This is the first story in the series. In the first story, Noah Biesiada looks into the challenges of evacuation communications in the last three wildfires. In the second story, Hosam Elattar examines what the fire means for Chino Hills State Park, with the fire burning more than 60 percent of the parkland.
Melanie Schlotterbeck, who raised alarm bells about the project before it was approved, says these fires go to show exactly what nearby residents and conservationists were warning about.
“We unfortunately told the decision-makers that the likelihood of this location burning again is high, given its history” and location in a high wildfire risk area, Melanie Schlotterbeck, a local resident and conservation advocate.
“We keep getting proved right,” she said. “You shouldn’t be putting houses in places that have burned multiple times. You shouldn’t put that many houses in a place with only one way in and out.”
The project, which hasn’t yet started construction, in a “very high fire hazard zone,” according to a state appeals court ruling, which noted the 2008 fire “burned the entire site in approximately 40 minutes, along with roughly 30,000 additional acres adjacent to the site.”
Two county supervisors have also raised concerns about the wildfire risks.
“The fact that part of the property burned is proof right there. And it will grow back and it will be a risk again,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Voice of OC in an interview last week.
“They did not, from what I can tell, have an adequate evacuation route,” he added. Firefighting resources could be brought in through an emergency road, “but if you had to evacuate that area, and everybody had to go, you didn’t have enough ability to do that,” he said.
“If they had put in additional evacuation, then it might have been okay. But it’s high risk, hard to evacuate.”
Schlotterbeck and other residents have sued multiple times, and an appeals court temporarily blocked the project because supervisors approved it without minimum evacuation standards.
After court action to halt the housing approval, County supervisors then updated their general plan and have re-approved the project after courts have ruled three times against it.
County officials “merely required future preparation of an evacuation plan without setting forth any specific standards for the plan to meet,” the unanimous ruling found in 2017.
The project has received its entitlements to build but hasn’t yet started construction.
The county supervisor who represents the area also had concerns about the wildfire risks.
“There is legitimate community concern about access for fire personnel and more importantly maybe even exit for residents in a worst-case scenario,” said Supervisor Don Wagner when the project came up for approval.
“The issues that they’ve raised…are issues that are substantive and I think really do deserve more attention than they seem to have gotten so far,” Wagner added, citing “the issue of public safety and indeed wildfires. The entrance and exits to the project are limited.”
He and Chaffee were on the losing end of a 3-2 vote last year that re-approved the project for construction.
When the Esperanza Hills project was first approved, the developer said the new homes would be more fire-resistant and would serve as a “buffer” to protect existing neighborhoods from flames.
“We will provide a buffer as we move the wildland interface out to the east away from the homes that are more vulnerable,” developer Doug Wymore told the public at a 2015 meeting.
Messages for comment were not returned by Wymore or the county supervisors who re-approved the project last year: Andrew Do, Michelle Steel, and Lisa Bartlett.
The developer gave maximum campaign contributions to all five supervisors who were in office when the project was being re-approved in 2018.
Elected officials who supported the project and also got campaign contributions from the developer all went on to keep winning elections.
About half the land they approved for housing ended up burning this year. Nearby residents got evacuated.
Meanwhile, residents like Schlotterbeck predict insurance companies will ultimately play the biggest role in limiting developments in such fire prone areas, as they pay out bigger and bigger losses and pass along the costs to homeowners.
“I think there’s going to be a point at which insurance companies kind of make the decisions for us,” she said, “that they’re just not willing to offer policies anymore.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].