Photo YubaNet

NEVADA CITY, Calif. May 23, 2019 – Wildfire preparedness and evacuation options are on everyone’s mind. The Nevada County BOS Chamber was over capacity last evening with the overflow crowd of Cascade Shores and Banner Mountain residents filling the foyer and a conference room at the Nevada County Rood Center.

Organized by the Friends of Banner Mountain and the Cascade Shores Firewise Association, the presentation by local and state agencies laid out the harsh reality of living in high fire hazard zones and what it takes to be as ready as possible when a fire threatens lives. An NCTV video of the meeting is available at the end of this story.

Banner Mountan FireWise community map

The program was moderated by Andrew Wilkinson, with Jeff Peach and Kent Rees representing Friends of Banner Mountain and Cascade Shores FireWise respectively.

Peach gave an update on the expanded Friends of Banner Mountain FireWise community and urged the audience to become a member of the association if they live within its boundaries. Rees stressed the necessity of being proactive and taking personal responsibility – a vital component of “YOU provide the defense, Firefighters provide the offense.” The Cascade Shores Homeowners Association website has more information for residents, including fire safety tips.

Nevada County District 1 Supervisor Heidi Hall provided an overview of the county’s efforts and reiterated that wildfire preparedness is the Board of Supervisors top priority. She pointed to the work of county departments and the collaborative efforts underway to prepare Nevada County for the upcoming high fire season.

Please, please, please, leave early!

CAL FIRE Division Chief Jim Matthias, a Nevada County native, shared statistics of CAL FIRE’s resources, both statewide and locally. He put a great emphasis on the collaboration between CAL FIRE and other agencies in Nevada County and declared local cooperation to be the best he has seen in his long career.

Fuel conditions, like the UC Field station grass crop survey estimating 5,800 pounds per acre in the Spring of 2018 (a 38% increase over the highest year ever recorded) and the estimated 124 million of standing dead trees throughout the Sierra Nevada are some of the factors leading to wildfires becoming more destructive, larger and deadlier.

Most destructive fires in CA history

The twenty most destructive fires in California history, in numbers of structures burned, lists nine fires between 2015 and 2018.  Five of the twenty deadliest fires occurred in the past two years, and seven of the twenty largest fires occurred in the past five years.

Matthias segued into evacuation vs shelter in place and the use of Temporary Refuge Areas (TRA) next.  He pleaded with the audience to be prepared, know more than one way out in case of a wildfire, pay attention to the weather and be prepared to leave early when told. Personal responsibility, including signing up for Nevada County’s CodeRED notification system, organizing with neighbors, and, above all, leaving early will increase your chance for survival. “Please, please, please – leave early!”

TRAs and shelter in place should only be used as a last resort and can be deadly. Matthias relayed two incidents ending in death or severe injuries where both firefighters and residents became trapped by fast-moving firefronts. Fire, much like water, flows with topography. Unlike water, fire will race uphill much faster than downhill. If you need to seek shelter, a brick or stucco home will offer more protection than traditional wood construction.

“Working together is the only way that we can reduce the threat of wildfire.”

Nevada County Consolidated Fire Department Chief Jim Turner, whose agency covers a lot of the Cascade Shores and Banner Mountain area, talked about the Joint Operation Area. The JOA is a consortium of local fire departments covering western Nevada County. The closest engine to any incident will respond, regardless of district boundaries. For example, it is quicker for an NCCFD engine to respond from Coyote Street to an incident at the Rood Center even though technically it is within Nevada City city limits. Their cooperation mirrors California’s mutual aid system where local government, Cal OES, CAL FIRE, federal resources and out of state resources will respond to any large incident like the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.

If NCCFD resources respond to an out-of-the-area incident, the district is always staffed, leaving no gaps in the coverage. But Turner also reminded the public that while engines are staffed with two firefighters at a minimum, the scarcity of resources demands homeowners take steps to be as prepared as possible.

Creating defensible space increases the chances of a home surviving a  fire and gives the occupants a better chance of escaping – if they are prepared.

Easily accessible driveways and reflective address signs will make it easier for firefighters to find your home in case of an emergency.

Turner’s staff is conducting Defensible Space Inspections (DSI) in collaboration with Nevada County. They are the first contact if a parcel owner does not comply with Nevada County’s hazardous vegetation ordinance. Between CAL FIRE, Nevada County OES inspectors and local fire agencies, over 4,000 DSIs were completed in 2018 within Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties.

Chief Turner also addressed concerns over the accessibility of Scotts Flat Dam Road. The gate on the road is a safety measure pursuant to DHS requirements.

NID worked with first responder agencies to install a Knox Box and every fire engine or law enforcement has access to the keys to open the road in case of an emergency.

Nevada County Sheriff’s Department and evacuations

NCSO Lieutenant Sean Scales focused on evacuation procedures. In case of a fire, NCSO’s dispatch is notified by the Emergency Command Center (ECC) dispatch of the need for evacuations. The duty officer will make contact with the fire’s incident commander to determine the size of the evacuation area, the direction of the fire and the immediate law enforcement resource needs. NCSO then sends out a CodeRED alert to residents based on the information.

Scales listed a number of challenges during evacuations:

  • The fire itself
  • Non-ambulatory people
  • Traffic
  • Resources
  • Communication
  • People refusing to leave
  • Logistics

Evacuation routes in the area have known chokepoints, Scales said. NCSO is planning and preparing to conduct evacuations with these obstacles in mind. How will they do it? “We need you!” Scales stated. Residents have to be ready to leave and leave immediately at the first notice.

“Don’t panic – leave early” 

Lieutenant George Steffenson, the Commander of CHP Grass Valley, echoed many of Scales’ points. CHP will work in cooperation with NCSO and fire agencies to facilitate evacuations. He emphasized preparedness and reminded the audience to leave as early as possible. Even if “only an evacuation advisory” is issued, nothing prevents you from leaving. In fact, leaving if you have the slightest concern is a good idea. On Red Flag days especially, remember to be ready to go and above all, don’t panic – execute your plan.

CodeRED, PSPS, EOC – what does it mean?

Captain Jeff Pettitt, Nevada County’s OES Manager, was pleased to see the overwhelming majority of attendees were signed up for Nevada County’s Emergency Alert system, CodeRED. Notifications are address-based, meaning you can sign up to receive alerts via text, voice or email for multiple addresses i.e. parents or friends and family members that may need assistance.

CodeRED offers the option of receiving general notifications besides the emergency alerts. This explains why sometimes a person will receive a notification about a missing person while their neighbor doesn’t. You can opt-in to receive all notifications by updating your free subscription.

PSPS, the acronym for Public Safety Power Shutoffs, are likely to affect Nevada County residents going forward. A PSPS can last between 2 and 5 days and will occur during extreme fire weather conditions or wind events. Plan to be without power for this extended period of time by having supplies, backup power, printed copies of contacts, medications and more.

Pettitt also recommended to leave early:

Implement your family’s wildfire action plan.
▪ If you have concerns for your safety, don’t wait.
▪ Fire may be closer than it looks.
▪ Avoid being caught in smoke, fire, and road congestion.

After evacuating, Tune in to local news media for updates to evacuation orders: KVMR, KNCO, YubaNet, The Union, County website and do not attempt to re-enter the evacuation zone until the evacuation order is lifted. Law enforcement will patrol the area, firefighters and their equipment need room to work, public works and utility companies need to mitigate risks before you can safely return.

In case of a major incident, Nevada County will open the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and coordinate shelters, coordinate with the incident commander or team, handle logistics and resources for the evacuation shelters and continue to operate long after the fire is contained to provide resources for anyone affected by the fire.

Public roads or private roads, all need maintaining

Nevada County Director of Public Works Trisha Tillotson presented an overview of the Public Works Department and the six divisions: Engineering, Fleet, Road Maintenance, Solid Waste, Transit and Wastewater.

The 560 miles of county-maintained roads are only a small portion of Nevada County’s road system – there are approximately 1,500 miles of private roads throughout the county.

Speaking of public roads, Tillotson explained that road maintenance is primarily funded by gas tax and vehicle license fees. No sales or property tax funds are used to maintain these roads. Vegetation management on county roads is typically 10 feet on both sides of a road. However, 38% of the roads don’t meet the minimum fire safe standard of 20’ and 86% of the 560 miles don’t have a minimum 4′ shoulder due to lack of easements or topography.

Nevada County does not plant trees or any other vegetation in a road right of way and residents are welcome to clear from their property to the road. If you have to work in the roadway, you’ll need an encroachment permit, both for traffic control and safety.

The county also offers a Do Not spray program in exchange for a resident agreeing to maintain vegetation, you can find details about the program here.

Private roads are the responsibility of the property owners, California Civil Code Section 845 requires maintenance of private roads. Tillotson suggested several possible options for maintenance like a recorded maintenance agreement, a road association, a homeowners association, or an informal agreement among neighbors.  Other options are Permanent Road Divisions (PRD) and County Service Areas (CSA) where residents vote to pay a fee that funds the maintenance cost, collected through annual payment of property taxes, bring their road up to county standards and the road is open to the public. Nevada County currently maintains 37 of these road divisions or service areas.

Answers to questions from the public

A great number of attendees had questions that were collected throughout the two-hour meeting. Due to time constraints, all of the questions will be compiled by YubaNet and we will publish the questions and answers in a separate story.

In the meantime, please prepare yourself and your family, friends, pets and home for the upcoming high fire season.

You can watch the presentation via NCTV’s YouTube channel here:

YouTube video