McCourtney Fire. Photo courtesy David LaFollette

NEVADA CITY, Calif. February 5, 2018 – Recently the Nevada County Board of Supervisors met for their annual board workshop to discuss priorities for the upcoming year and, most importantly, the budget. Wildfire prevention was part of the discussion, with some changes to the county’s vegetation management ordinance and a modest increase to the funding of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County proposed by staff. But, are those measures enough?

Many expenditures by local government are prescribed by local, state and federal guidelines with health and safety being the overarching priorities. These core services are the focus of the county’s budget priorities. Nevada County defines the core services as follows: “A core service is defined as that which is essential to the public’s health and safety.  Areas funded by the County in this category include roads, jail, law enforcement and required maintenance of effort to leverage state or other sources of revenue for basic public/mental health services and other social services.” Note the absence of fire safety/prevention.

Lobo Fire

To be fair, in 2017 the BOS’ objective list included this tidbit as an A priority: “Prioritize the implementation of existing County policies and programs to reduce the risk of wildfire and the effects of wildfire on life, property and the environment. Continue active leadership of participation on the local Tree Mortality Task Force to coordinate emergency protective actions, and monitor ongoing conditions, secure state funding to address the vast tree mortality issue to reduce fire hazard and promote forest health and watershed.

During the workshop, staff proposed to use social media to reach out to residents and talk about fire prevention. They’ll be launching an education campaign and started by posting some information in the Friday memo. There was also a discussion about tweaking the existing vegetation management ordinance.

Is that enough?

We, as a community, must do more to mitigate the ever-present and increasing fire danger. That includes local government stepping up and setting an example. A few suggestions include:

  • Bring county-maintained roads up to the same standard required for driveways (CPRC 4291.) 39% of the 560 miles in the county’s road system are unpaved rural roadways. While the roads themselves are well-maintained, what about clearance on each side and above the road?
  • Adopt Firewise standards countywide. Nevada County already has the highest number of Firewise communities in California with 22 Firewise-certified neighborhoods and an additional 23 working towards certification.
  • Becoming a Firewise County could allow Nevada County to leverage additional state and federal funding – while increasing public safety and awareness.
  • Incentivize property owners to do more. Brush clearing and tree removal are expensive and beyond the financial ability of many.
  • Exempt firewise improvements from permit fees i.e. rain catchment systems
  • Expand senior assistance programs.
  • Provide free green waste drop-off locations.
  • Provide “street-wide” chipping at reduced costs or expand the Fire Safe Council’s chipping program.
  • Revive/create plans for small biomass gasification plant.
  • Provide training and education for safe burn piles or broadcast burns in cooperation with the fire agencies.
  • Provide financing opportunities for established neighborhoods in the Wildland Urban Intermix (WUI) to obtain reliable water supply (non-treated water) for fire suppression, possibly in collaboration with NID.
  • Make the Letter of Authority property owners can provide to local law enforcement under California Penal Section 602(o) accessible as a form on the county website.
  • Lead by example.

There are many more options and ideas to increase public safety, be that additional signage on county roads for emergency evacuations, inspections of utility-maintained easements, or effectively enforcing the existing vegetation management ordinance.

Fire behavior has increased in the past ten years, with extreme fire behavior becoming the new normal. We must adapt to this new normal or suffer heartbreaking losses. The time to do it is now.

4 replies on “Commentary: “All hands on deck” – Is wildfire prevention a priority for Nevada County?”

  1. In October of 2003, Southern California experienced what was thought to be the most devastating wild land/urban interface fire disaster in its history. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a total of 739,597 acres were burned, 3,631 homes were destroyed and 24 lives were lost, including one firefighter. The aftermath of the fires saw even greater loss of life wherein 16 people perished
    in a flash flood/mudslide in an area of San Bernardino County due to the loss of vegetation impacted by the fire.

    Accordingly, the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission was established to conduct a review of the efforts to fight the October 2003 wildfires and present recommendations to make California less vulnerable to disasters of such enormity in the future.

    Here is what Chariman of that committee stated BACK IN 2003: “Unless and until public policymakers at all levels of government muster the political will to put the protection of life and property ahead of competing political agendas, these tragedies are certain to repeat.”

    It’s time that we in Nevada County insist that we create and enforce a new hazardous vegetation abatement ordinance that incorporates the lastest science and expert recommendations going above and beyond current state laws related to defensible space.

  2. By any measure, Nevada County has one of the highest risks for wildland fire. Mitigating that fire threat should rise to the top of the agenda for the Board of Supervisors. The old answers to evacuation and enforcement no longer stand up to the new reality of mega-fires that can easily overwhelm our residents and our firefighting resources. Take a quick look by driving around the area. With the condition of our roads, can people safely evacuate? What about the many places where we see the massive build-up of dry brush and ground litter, open to ignition with just the flick of a cigarette? What about the uncleared vacant lots and vacation homes of occasional visitors who remain clueless about how they put the rest of us at risk? We need new answers and a renewed dedication to making our county safer, and it has to come from everyone,
    not just the fire agencies and organizations like the Fire Safe Council. The Board of Supervisors can start by taking some bold leadership.

  3. Make it a habit to go out and mow, trim, limb up at least 15 minutes a day. It much like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. When you get done, you have to start over again immediately

  4. Clearly the only way to reduce fire danger is by burning….when it’s safe to burn. When fuel loads are reduced fire intensity is reduced. It’s call prescribed ( controlled) burning. Frequently low intensity burns seem to have been the case for thousands of years in the Sierras, and all kinds of other good things happen then too. Herbaceous plants, wild flowers no one’s seen for decades appear. The tree in the forest get a bonus of minerals available to them from the ash, and future controlled burns are easier after the first one or two times, and more water is available for the trees that remain, making them more resistant to insect attack. Only problem is…..any time its dry enough to do a burn, the Air Quality Control Board or CalFire ( nervous nellies) declare a no burn day. The only times burns are allowed is a day or two after a rain when you couldn’t get a burn to carry-couldn’t start it with napalm. CalFire should be as concerned about preventing fire as they are (gratefully) good at controlling them. They could have their crews available during controlled burn seasons made available to jump in, in case a controlled burn gets out of control. Right now that isn’t allowed unless it’s a large burn (20 acres or more), and then the fiery hoops one has to go through to get a permit are just too much trouble. The fire we just had in the LA area released three times as much carbon in one go as San Francisco produces in a year. Low intensity and frequent burns do make smoke for a short time, but nothing like what happened last year all over the state. After a controlled burn, “dog hair thickets” of Doug fir are thinned out, over reproduction of Ceanothus and manzanita is reduced, all of which leaves more water and minerals available to large trees. And of course, it’s a Hell of a lot cheaper than masticating, or hand removal and burning in piles. Yes, fire lines have to be made, and that takes some time, but then they can be used if kept up over and over in succeeding years. One other thing: the woods “look” better, more open, more browse for deer, more species diversity. And I don’t see any mention of this is what the county board of supervisors are considering when looking at this issue. It is the only way I can see to get things back into balance.

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