There is an imminent threat to life from growing tree mortality issues in the county. Its increasingly impacting fire access and evacuation routes, defensible space, and partner fuel reduction and mitigation projects. I have vigorously communicated my concerns with Nevada County Office of Emergency Services (OES) and my county supervisor. I am very concerned about grave hazards to firefighters, other emergency responders and residents during wildfires.  Many primary and secondary fire access/evacuation routes are currently at increased risk of trapping, directly injuring residents and firefighters and, blocking access. I counted 24 dead trees and/or large branches within falling distance along Highway 49 between Coyote Street and North San Juan alone! Even dead or dying trees that are not directly leaning towards roads, can fall that way under strong winds, such as those that come with intense wildfires.

Tyler Foote Road in North San Juan
Tyler Foote Road in North San Juan. Photo by Dr. Fites

There have already been multiple wildland firefighters killed by falling trees this season. We don’t know how many were next to roads, but why leave trees next to roads with higher likelihood of falling and causing harm? We know that having to deal with snags can worsen fire spotting, increase blow-ups, and put all people at greater risk during wildfires. Especially troubling are the dead trees along highways and roads that have been there for a while and are exploding in numbers each week and fire season gets more intense. I personally have had had near misses on wildfires, where fires blew up, we had to leave areas immediately and trees fell across the road blocking our best escape. Luckily, we had alternate routes out. Although the civilians that have died during wildfires this year, including just this last week, were not killed by trees that we know of, this is a very real concern. Why stack the odds against us? Staying behind is not a safe answer. I won’t.

I have communicated with various fire agency staff and Firewise Community members and they are all very concerned. This is a growing crisis that needs to be addressed as the emergency it is. NOW!

Why isn’t this an all-hands-on deck effort by Nevada County Public Works, OES, and CALTRANS? Fire departments are getting emergency calls at all hours to clear fallen trees that are blocking roads, often key fire access/evacuation routes. This takes away from being available at moments notice to respond to wildfires and other emergencies. Why are they having to do this work? Why do I see CALTRANS painting new lines on the roads instead of cutting dead trees and large branches? Why don’t I see the county road department out there cutting dead trees instead of other less critical work they are doing?

There are also dead trees appearing left and right along power lines, despite the intensive work that PG&E has been doing for months. I know they are working hard and investing millions of dollars, but it is not enough.

I have urged the county for several weeks now to take leadership and act immediately to take this on. In the near and long-term, we need a taskforce of all partners to collectively do all we can to address the crisis. I have contacted multiple fire agencies, foresters and Firewise Communities. They all agree we need a taskforce. We know that tree mortality usually multiplies rapidly. It’s better to work fast now before it gets worse and even more overwhelming.  Fires are not waiting and neither should we. Figure out how to use all available equipment, staff, contractors and volunteers to get the most critical areas cleared immediately. For goodness’ sake, declare an emergency and tap into additional state and federal resources.

I urge everyone to get on the phone and call their county supervisor and demand action. 530-265-1480.

And if you are one that concludes that this only proves why we need Measure V to fund more roadside fuel clearance, I’m still on the fence and not with you. To me, it starts with priorities with what we already have. I see mowing that spreads highly flammable scotch broom, starthistle and other weeds because best practices of weed washing equipment is not practiced. Firewise Communities, including mine, encounter endless red tape and delays getting required encroachment permits and prohibitive professional traffic control expenses to get weedeating and pruning done ourselves. The county is spending lots of money making it tougher on Firewise Communities just trying to make their roads safe. These are things that don’t need new money to fix. Prioritizing cutting dead trees along the road shouldn’t be either. The worst insect outbreaks are in dense patches of smaller pines, crowding the county easements next to roads. I’d like to see more effective work done with what we have before I support funding more. I’ll stay open minded, but convince me first you can deal with the most basic, life threatening dead trees.

Dr. Jo Ann Fites is a retired US Forest Service Fire Scientist, with over 15 years working on active wildfires. She has conducted 30 Firewise Community Fire Hazard and Risk Assessments, mostly in Nevada County. 

5 replies on “Dr. Jo Ann Fites: Dead trees endangering firefighters and citizens”

  1. Hear hear!!
    I am 100% with you on this. It has long been a top concern of mine. Thank you for taking such a public stance. I was so heartened when one of PGE’s contractors cut a huge dead oak on my neighbor’s property last week, which would have fallen towards the road. I will make the call. Hopefully many others will, too!

  2. Thank you for your article. This is tangential to your article as it doesn’t include road fire mitigation, but what about undeveloped properties adjacent to other developed and cleared properties? My husband and I live on the top of a ridge, and are next to a large undeveloped area, ~9 acres at the top of the ridge, and ~100 acres below. For decades (not years, decades) we have been trying to buy portions of this property (and at one time were in escrow on the entire 110 acres) for fire mitigation, but have not been successful in doing so. It is on a steep slope, heavily wooded, not logged, filled with brush, dead trees – a definite fire hazard. The potential of a fire starting at the bottom of the ridge (homeless encampment), and spreading rapidly up the steep slope onto our property and threatening our home, is great.

    We have contacted a number of agencies in the area (NCCF, OES, FSC, etc.); all have said they have no jurisdiction over forcing the owner to clear the property of fire hazards, or that unless there’s a building within 50’ (or 100’) of the property line, there’s no code or law that applies.

    It seems that all we can do in the event of destruction to our house and property that is due to a fire spreading from this property is to sue the owners and the agencies that we have contacted.

    Do you have any other suggestions?

  3. I am a senior citizen on a fixed income and would like to know how to get financial help with trees that need to be limbed adjacent to Pioneer Park. I am on a fixed income, but will need to spend $15,000 with no financial help forthcoming so far from any agency.Any ideas?

    1. What I would do for that is I would call 211. And talk to one of their agents to see if they can help you out with an issue with dead trees and clearing under the trees. I hope that this will help you put too. Sarah

  4. Absolutely! And I’m not a Karen but all around surrounding areas of Nevada City are dead trees from last winter’s storm. Still. We need a task force dedicated to addressing this issue which affects everyone.

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