Friday, December 12, 2008

Claim: Yorba Linda slopes left dry by city fueled fire

A month before the Freeway Complex fire burned through the Yorba Linda community in November, the city stopped watering some city-owned easements in an effort to reduce their liability from landslides on the watered slopes. Now at least one resident is suing them, claiming the dry vegetation in the easement caused their house to burn during the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the Orange County Register:
In October, the city sent out two notices to the 13 homes that were directly affected by the dry easements – spanning parts of Hidden Hills Road, Green Mount Place and High Tree Circle. The first notice told residents the water was already off and the second stated the city's intention to completely abandon the easements.

Why? To prevent any more lawsuits against the city for land movement and inverse condemnation in the Hidden Hills area, officials said.

"The city is liable because we maintain the easements by watering them," interim City Manager Bill Kelly said in October. "Water may not have been the issue in those suits, but because of that we still get sued. The city is the closest deep pocket."

During the past four years, the city spent $4.8 million on litigation costs, according to the city attorney. To cut costs and eventually lift its responsibility of the slopes, the city started taking steps to completely abandon the easements.

Residents were also told they could not water the easements. If they did, they would be violating municipal code.

"We're asking residents not to water. If vegetation starts to die we will clear the area of dead plants to prevent a fire hazard," Mark Stowell, the public works director and city engineer, said in October.

The Johnsons’ claimed the city did not clear the dead brush around the easement, according to Traut.

A view of a charred landscape easement above the Hidden Hills Road coul-de-sac. The city stopped watering this easement a month before the Freeway Complex Fire. Below is what is left of a home at 22590 Hidden Hills Road. ERIN WELCH, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Orange County Fire Authority and city staffers were checking on the slopes frequently before the fire, Stowell said.

“Nothing had died out yet, and there was no need to clear brush,” he said. “The easements up there now are green. In fact, it was the easements we kept watering that got completely burned.”

About two weeks before the fire, OCFA did not declare the easements as a hazard, officials said.

“We were monitoring those slopes regularly,” Stowell said.

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