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Nevada County Grand Jury Report: Wildfire Danger In Nevada County


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By: Nevada County Civil Grand Jury

Reason for Investigation

California has recently experienced severe wildfires in the Lake Tahoe Area and in Southern California that resulted in serious damage to property and some loss of life. Because of the increasing threat of catastrophic fire, the 2007-2008 Nevada County Grand Jury (Jury) reviewed the status of wildfire protection services in Nevada County.

Method of Investigation

The Jury interviewed personnel from several fire agencies, Cal Fire (previously CDF), a member of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) and a Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) representative. The Jury examined the Municipal Service Review (MSR) on Fire Protection and Emergency Services (January 2005) prepared for LAFCo, and utilized data from the Review in preparing this report. The Jury also examined a 1992 Study, commissioned by LAFCo, which recommended consolidation of Western Nevada County Fire Protection Districts (FPD) and a 2004/5 Jury study of FPDs in the County. Finally, several members of the Jury reviewed various iterations of the Draft Nevada County Fire Plan (Fire Plan) and attended several public hearings concerning the Fire Plan. Background

"With its long hot summers, steep terrain, significant accumulations of wild land fire fuels and significant residential development with lagging infrastructure, Nevada County represents the ideal environment for large damaging wildfires." (Nevada-Yuba-Placer, Fire Management Plan)

"All of us living in Nevada County live in a fire prone environment." (Draft Nevada County

Fire Plan, December 21, 2007). (See Figure 1, Nevada County: Communities at Risk –list, and Figure 2 Nevada County: Communities at Risk- map).

The increasing threat of extreme wildfire in Nevada County is the result of a complex set of issues that include:

- wildfire and population growth are on a collision course;

- fire is a natural part of our county environment;

- logging practices, and fire prevention and suppression practices and policies have created the potential for catastrophic fires;

- population growth is occurring in areas of high fire hazard;

- Climate change may create an increasing fire danger for all residents.

This report looks at two aspects of the wildfire threat in Nevada County; first, the current status of the resources available to deal with the suppression of wildland fires and second, the efforts of Nevada County Board of Supervisors to develop and implement a Nevada County Fire Plan.

A. Brief Overview of Nevada County Fire Suppression Agencies

The 2005 MSR observed, "Financing is the most critical issue for the fire agencies in Nevada County." The MSR also concluded that while the wildfire threat is increasing, the revenues to support the various fire departments are not. The MSR observed that some form of reorganization of fire agencies might result in improvements in efficiency while maintaining current levels of service. The same general conclusions had been reached by the 1992 Study that stated; 1) "fire prevention activities are implemented unevenly, 2) there is duplication of resources and effort among the 10 districts and 3) budgets have been significantly rising."

Fire services in Nevada County are provided by eight independent FPDs, one Water District that provides fire services, two city Fire Departments, Cal Fire, and the United States Forest Service (USFS). These 13 fire organizations have a total of 36 stations (based on data from the MSR). (See Figure 3, Nevada County Fire Agencies and Figure 4, Nevada County Fire stations)

Approximately 80 % of the calls to fire agencies are not directly fire related but are the result of medical emergencies and/or vehicle accidents. However, these numbers vary depending on the individual agencies. (See Figure 5, Emergency Responses by Fire Agency and Figure 6, Emergency Response Times by Agency)

According to data in the MSR nearly all the fire agencies have multiple mutual and automatic aid agreements by which the agencies assist one another. For example, one agreement covers Grass Valley, Nevada City and Nevada County Consolidated Fire District (NCCFD); another agreement covers the City of Grass Valley, and the Ophir Hill Fire District. Truckee FPD has separate agreements with adjacent fire districts and other counties.

Penn Valley FPD and Truckee FPD provide paramedic emergency response service with public funding. The service is provided on a fee for service basis in Truckee and is provided without charge to Penn Valley residents and on a fee for service basis to non- residents.

B. Development of a Nevada County Fire Plan

Nevada County has been working on developing a County Fire Plan since September 2003 when the BOS appointed a Fire Plan Committee (FPC) composed of the County Fire Marshall and four local fire experts. The committee was directed to develop a Fire plan that would recommend measures to reduce the threat of wildfires in the County, be consistent with the general plan and meet the requirements of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003.

The FPC held 18 public meetings to draft the Fire Plan and also held 15 public workshops to receive public comments. The BOS approved the Fire Plan on August 4, 2004 with modifications. The FPC was directed to make further modifications, develop a work plan and return for final approval of the Plan. The BOS approved the modifications at its meeting on May 24, 2005.

Before final approval, an initial study (environmental Impact) was released in February 2006 and a public hearing was held on April21 2006.The FPC after reviewing the initial study and public comments directed the Deputy Fire Marshall to redraft the Fire Plan to incorporate environmental and other concerns. The revisions to the Fire Plan were presented to the FPC and the public on August 6, 2007. After an additional 10 public hearings and subsequent modifications to the Fire Plan, the FPC approved the document at its Dec 11, 2007 public meeting and recommended that the BOS adopt the Fire Plan. The final Fire Plan and the accompanying California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) study were released to the public on Dec 21, 2007.

The Fire Plan was presented to the BOS at a public hearing on Feb 12, 2008. At that meeting the BOS asked the Planning Department to review the Plan, identify the costs associated with the recommendations and report back. At its February 26 meeting the staff recommended and the BOS directed that the Planning Department divide the Fire Plan into three documents, an information document to be included with the Stewardship Program, another document which was a revision to the Nevada County General Plan's Section 10 Safety, and a final document, the CEQA initial study. The BOS at its April 8 meeting voted "... to approve the proposed Nevada County General Plan Safety Element update and direct staff to circulate it for the formal comment period(45 or 90 days) leading up to the adoption of the new Safety Element, including this language."

The Nevada County Fire Plan (December 21, 2007) stated that the County has suffered four major fires in the last 20 years. These fires resulted in the loss of nearly 200 structures and costs of over 70 million dollars in damages and suppression costs. The Draft fire plan further stated…"without significant intervention, large and damaging fires are not only inevitable but will repeat time and again." In the next paragraph, the Plan stated that, "County Government must address the governmental structure and funding process to implement the recommendations."

Findings

1. Some areas of Nevada County are not within the boundaries of any fire district and rely on Cal Fire and/or USFS for response in the event of a fire. (See Figure 3, Fire Agencies)

2. Nevada County fire agencies rely on paid staff and/or volunteers. Many of the volunteers work out of the area and are not available to respond to all emergency calls. Volunteers and paid staff have to complete the same considerable amount of training time required for certification.

3. Nevada County fire agencies are losing well-trained emergency professionals to wealthier districts, to Cal Fire, and to the USFS.

4. In spite of limited budgets and staff, cooperative efforts have to date allowed the various fire agencies to perform their fire suppression functions in an adequate manner.

5. Successful mergers between fire agencies usually result from the desire to improve services and reduce costs. In general, mergers occur between agencies with similar financial resources.

6. The voters must approve taxes or assessments to increase funding for fire protection. Proposition 13 requires a 2/3 majority for any tax increase. However, under Proposition 218, a fire district assessment requires only a simple majority. (See Figure 7,Voter Requirements For Different Types of Elections and Assessments)

7. Availability of effective fire services is a factor in determining insurance rates for property in Nevada County. Recently, several insurance companies have stopped writing insurance policies in Nevada County because of the increasing risk of catastrophic fires.(See Figure 8, Insurance Service Office (ISO) Rating's of Nevada County Fire Agencies)

8. A recent election sponsored by Chicago Park /Peardale FPD to finance improved fire services failed while the property owners approved a similar election sponsored by the Truckee FPD.

9. Many residents of Nevada County are not aware that the County has no statutory duty to provide fire protection services within the County and assumes no responsibility for providing these services

10. There is a great disparity among fire agencies in the scope and quality of services. (See Figure 6 Emergency Response Time, and Figure 9, Costs and Population Served)

11. The BOS treatment of the Fire Plan on April 8, 2008 significantly reduced the importance of the Fire Plan, shifting its focus from mandates and requirements to persuasion and cooperation.

Conclusions

1. There is a lack of public understanding about who is responsible for the financing, providing, and coordinating of fire protection services within the County. Many residents are incorrect on their belief that the County government has a significant role in fire protection services.

2. Voter approval of increased financing for fire protection could favorably influence insurance rates.

3. Fire protection is affected by the complex geography of the fire agencies and an even more complex set of funding methods that provide inconsistent and irregular funding for equipment and staffing

4. To date, because of the good will and cooperation of the various fire services, fire suppression activities in Nevada County has been adequate.

5. The citizens of Nevada County currently do not receive equal levels of fire services across jurisdictions within the county.

6. The public should be concerned that a local electorate rejected a ballot measure to increase support for fire services.

7. Recently modified by the BOS, the Fire Plan now does not appear to require adequate action by the County against the threat of catastrophic fires as it no longer "...provides the Board of Supervisors with recommendations to reduce the risk and impacts from wildland fires to life, property and natural resources in Nevada County." (Nevada County Fire Plan)

8. The BOS approval of their modified Fire Plan does not provide the governmental structure or funding process originally envisioned by the FPC, and fails meet Nevada County citizens' desperate needs.

Recommendations

1. The BOS should request that LAFCO commission a study to determine by fire agency the accurate cost of fire protection services in Nevada County. This could be done as a separate study or by modifying the next scheduled MSR on Fire Protection and Emergency Services and by having that Review conducted earlier than is now planned.

2. The BOS should initiate a concerted public education program to increase public awareness and understanding of fire services and how they are financed. Such a program would extend beyond the goal proposed under Nevada General Plan Goal FP-10.9 that directs the County to "Encourage fire safety education and support programs to promote participation, voluntary compliance, and community awareness of fire safety issues."

3. The BOS should sponsor a meeting including LAFCO and all agencies and districts that relate to fire services to discuss the feasibility of developing a uniform and consistent set of services and the potential for future efficiencies through consolidation.

4. The BOS should reassess their action of April 8, 2008 and return the teeth to the Fire Plan that their actions removed. They should strengthen the proposed update to the Nevada County General Plan Safety Element, (Chapter 10; Safety). The changes should include rewording of Goal FP-10.12 to read; "The County should implement policies FP- 10.12.1.1 through FP-10.12.1.28 prioritizing by the order in which they appear and designate them to be Action Policies." (Attachment 10 provides the current wording of the Goal and the Advisory Policies.)

Response Required

Nevada County Board of Supervisors October 3, 2008

The full report with attachments is available for download here.

 

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