Mandatory Brush Clearing Leads to Tax Sale in San Diego

A California man is fighting efforts by San Diego county officials to auction off his property after he refused to remove combustible vegetation from around his home, and then refused to pay the expenses of the private contractor who performed the work. Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam Vet who lives alone deep in rural eastern San Diego County, has until July 1, 2010 to pay the charges, plus interest.

State and local fire officials, reeling after years of tragic wildland fire losses, are stuck in the middle of this pitched battle.



Predictably, the media has characterized the battle as one of individual rights versus the big bad government bureaucracy, but fundamentally there is a serious question of individual rights versus individual responsibility. Whether it is the risk from wildland fires, or the threat of an approaching hurricane – people demand the freedom to ignore a dangerous situation until it is too late, and then complain (and often sue) when help doesn’t come fast enough.

The reality is that government doesn’t enough fire trucks to place hose streams between every home and the combustible vegetation around it, nor enough helicopters to rescue everyone who ignores hurricane evacuation orders. That is where individual responsibility comes in.

While part of me is sympathetic to Diliberti's plight, somewhere a balance needs to be struck. Perhaps this case will help better define the line between individual rights and individual responsibility… at least when it comes to safe practices in the WUI.

Here is a link to more on the story.

Here is a link to Diliberti's Facebook Support page.

The NPFA's Firewise program.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • John K. Murphy

    Not from California but from Washington, there is a major wild land problem in the West especially in California. Occasionally Washington is on fire but not with the frequency of our neighbor to the south with lives lost, billions of dollars in property damage and major costs for fire suppression services. Many times these wild land fires can be prevented through careful maintenance of property. In order to accomplish that goal there has been enactment of vegetation abatement programs with rigorous enforcement by the local jurisdictions.
    In San Diego County under the County Ordinance among other items:
    The County has a cooperative fire hazard removal program with certain fire agencies who have adopted the County’s ordinance for Removal of Combustible Vegetation and Other Flammable materials. The fire agency makes the determination that a fire hazard exists and issues a Legal Notice and Order to Remove Fire Hazards. If a property owner fails to remove the fire hazard the fire agency makes formal request to the County for additional enforcement. DPLU Code Enforcement will then initiate a summary abatement of the fire hazard and all costs incurred in that abatement would be recoverable from the property owner. If you have received a Legal Notice and Order to Remove Fire Hazards, your initial contact must be with the enforcement officer and fire district listed on the form.
    The accumulation of combustible vegetation, dead, dying or diseased trees, green waste, rubbish, and other materials on private property creates a condition that is a fire hazard and potentially injurious to the health, safety, and general welfare of the public. The presence of such combustible vegetation, dead, dying or diseased trees, green waste, rubbish, and other materials on parcels constitutes a public nuisance which may be abated by the County. All costs for the abatement will be reimbursed to the County by the property owner.
    The idea is to create a defensible space and to abate those unnecessary hazardous that cause catastrophic wild land fires.
    In San Diego County, they also recommend using goats to assist in this abatement program. This appears to be one of those governmental police powers that are so necessary in this high hazard area.
    Is this a simple case of going after a veteran to clear his property – probably not and there are hundreds of others that have been asked to remove this hazardous material and create a safe environment for themselves and their neighbors. My suggestion – rent goats

  • The goat option actually works!!!! One of my areas of responsibility at the NFPA was the Firewise program – and I learned alot about the WUI challenges. Goats are definitely an option. (My wife’s not buying though… I tried).
    Fundamentally – it comes down to individual responsibility. Fire departments cannot protect every home from an approaching wildfire. Its hard for some fire departments to openly admit it but it’s the truth. Either the homeowners take affirmative steps themselves to prepare the property – or the predictible result will happen if a wildfire approaches.
    Mandating brush clearing is the next step when talk and education doesn’t work – but once you start down that road these types of cases are inevitable. Following the Firewise model would be so much simpler. It avoids the need for the drama that is playing itself out in San Diego.

  • Curt, you’ve made some good observations regarding this situation, but the missing component is how this whole situation played out in the first place.
    The fundamental problem is that the local fire district gave police power to a private firm that only makes a profit with forced abatements. They issue the abatement notices and do the work. This is a serious conflict of interest which helps explain why three fire districts in the region terminated their contracts with this company. Many can find fault with Diliberti, but for a government agency to allow this situation to continue for as long as it has and end up taking the man’s home demonstrates a clear abuse of power.
    Unfortunately, Diliberti is only one of several dozen victims, including an 80 year old woman, who have had their lives turned upside down by clearance contractors who are in search of profit. If this kind of thing continues, the public will begin to question the purpose of vegetation management regulations and may be more resistent to voluntary compliance. That would set behind our efforts to create fire safe communities significantly.
    We have a full explanation of the Diliberti situation on our website:

  • Richard
    Thank you for your well reasoned explanation. I have to admit, that aspect of the case escaped my notice – as well as the notice of the news media outlets covering the story.
    In New England, the idea of government coming on your property and insisting you provide clearance between vegitation and structures would be completely unthinkable – so to even write about such a practice that is apparently accepted in California offends my sense of justice and privacy. However I assume that historical experience with wildland fires justifies such draconian measures. I agree that for government to delegate such responsibilities to private profiteers seems to be way over the top.
    The NFPA’s Firewise program ( taken a voluntary approach in this regard – emphasizing the personal responsibility aspect of maintaining one’s property. It suprises me that Firewise has not found as much support in California as it should. There seems to be a sense that if you do not mandate it by law, it won’t be done. Firewise would add a valuable and credible voice to your discussion.
    Again – thank you for your excellent points and clarification. Good luck with your campaign.


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