November 19, 2018 – Seeing what happened in Paradise is heartbreaking and scary to those of us living in a similar environment in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. There are actions that we and the county can take now to be better prepared for such an event here. Recent opinion pieces in the local media and articles by national and state media have stressed the importance of clearing for defensible space and reducing hazardous fuels. But I have been speaking about my grave concerns about safe, timely evacuations during a wildfire for over a year to the Nevada County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors: the capacity of our roads to handle emergency evacuations. Our roads are designed for normal traffic, not what occurred on the Camp Fire as Paradise and other residents tried desperately to evacuate rapidly while flames and dense smoke surrounded them. There was a traffic jam. Similar traffic jams occurred in Napa, Lake Wildwood, and Sonoma last year.
I commend the County for multiple actions emphasizing fire preparedness, including development of a county wide Community Fire Protection Plan. However, as we all now realize, there is much more we all need to do. Below is a summary of the constructive ideas I have presented to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. I have also included other actions we can all take today because a little rain next week, if we are lucky, will not likely be enough to make fire season go away. In future Op-Eds I will out line actions that the State and Federal Agencies can take.
- What we can all do today to better prepare for safe evacuations ASAP.
- Sign up for code red with the county for immediate notification of fires near you (https://www.mynevadacounty.com/1293/CodeRED-Emergency-Alerts)
- Get ready to go now (Ready Set Go at CALFire http://www.readyforwildfire.org/)
- Talk to your neighbors and set up carpooling if at all possible – FEWER CARS on the ROAD may be the difference between life and death! We need to learn that lesson immediately from the Paradise Fire. Fires can move very fast and there won’t always be enough time to drive slowly in a long line of cars. Every one wants their own cars and “things” but I want to survive. Staying in place may work in some instances but in our forested conditions and structures that are not fire proof (no flammable parts), that is not a choice I am going to make.
- What Nevada County can do and we should be asking them to do now.
- The county should conduct a realistic analysis of evacuation capacity of roads ASAP. There are existing GIS (automated geographic information system or mapping) models to do this and the county has the technical capacity to do this. We need to know what roads are most likely to get clogged up, particularly those critical to evacuation of large numbers of residents. This includes planned developments.
- The county should work with residents and community groups to develop means to reduce the number of vehicles on roads during evacuations. This may include buses for large communities or pre-organized carpooling. This may be the difference between life and death.
- The county should evaluate the ability to add additional lanes and pullouts along likely key, high volume evacuation roads. I have suggested the addition of a bike lane along Tyler Foote Road on the North San Juan ridge as one example of a way to provide an additional lane during emergency evacuations.
- The county should do detailed analysis of the impact of developments that would increase the number of people on key evacuation routes. Not long ago, when I spoke to the Nevada County Planning Commission about this concern, one of the commissioners said that unfortunately, we have to have developments and more receipts (money) to pay for road improvements. This is backwards thinking when it comes to considering impacts of development to safe evacuations. More development without realistic consideration of evacuation capacity of roads will brew a dangerous situation in a fire.
- The county should advise and develop means to assist private landowners in the need to and means to clear more than 10 feet along roads that would be used to evacuate people. We have all seen the walls of flames surrounding roads people were trying desperately to evacuate on in Paradise. Based on crown fire potential and fuel conditions in the county, the CALFIRE requirements for defensible space within 30 and 100 feet of homes should be applied to roads (PRC 4291).
We are all responsible for addressing these issues and preventing fire fatalities. However, the county and state are in a position to help us on a broader scale, and particularly with road preparedness for emergencies. I for one am very supportive of changes in budget priorities and increased taxes to implement the measures I have identified above and others that would help substantially.
Some say that it is the fault of the people that live in these environments intermixed and in the interface with fire prone forests and chaparral. There are certainly more stringent building codes and restrictions on development that could make things safer. But people have always lived in these rural areas and those people are the ones that work in the forests that supply much of the State’s water and recreational opportunities that the residents of California, the US and beyond enjoy. This is a complex problem that is a result of forests in dire need of restoration and fuels reduction, unmanaged development and associated evacuation planning, and climate change. There is no one answer but it is clear that fast and dedicated action by all of us, from individuals, neighbors, communities, counties, the state and federal governments is needed to avoid future tragedies. I’m calling my neighbor today to arrange an evacuation carpool!
Dr. Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman is a retired Fire Scientist with over 30 years in land management planning, 15 years in measuring fire behavior and extreme fire behavior on wildfires.