NORTH SAN JUAN, Calif. November 11, 2018 – “Fire on the Ridge: How do we make our community more fire safe?” was a free public event hosted by the San Juan Ridge Taxpayers Association intended to bring greater awareness of fire prevention and safety issues on the San Juan Ridge.

Summary: In this “New Normal” in California, all speakers reminded folks that fire needs oxygen and fuel. Remove the fuel and you have Defensible Space. California state law Public Resources Code 4291 requires a person who owns, leases, controls, operates, or maintains a building or structure in, upon, or adjoining a mountainous area, forest-covered lands, brush-covered lands, grass-covered lands, or land that is covered with flammable material, shall at all times create defensible space of 100’ around the structure. Obviously, there is much more in that law, and you can read it on home page.

Some of the takeaways from the meeting:

Cal Fire Jim Mathias, North Operations Division Chief identified the resources the State fire agency has available to respond, including Station 42 on Tyler Foote Crossing near Cruzon Grade, noting CalFire is the largest fire department in the country. Chief Mathias spoke of California’s 20 most destructive fires in acres, loss of life and structures noting the largest of these have occurred in the past 2 fire seasons – and they are trending to be worse due to the explosive nature of the dry conditions. He explained fires are often wind-driven with river canyons acting as chimneys, accelerating fire behavior, and sending fire brands (live embers) long distances, creating spots fires ahead of the fire front. He cautioned, the news about the current “Camp Fire” is not expected to be good. When not on the fire-lines, Cal Fire provides grants and labor to accomplish reduction of hazardous fuels wherever there are “shovel-ready” projects. Challenges they face include coordinating with landowners, including Federal and residents preferring their privacy to safety. It was noted that with Goggle Earth – privacy is a myth as the Ridge was last captured this summer for anyone to view. Chief Mathias, who by the way loves his job and is very entertaining, brought maps of the Montezuma Fuel Break and the upcoming Sages Road brushing project.

NSJ Fire Battalion Chief Boyd Johnson said he was inspired to join the Fire department 30 years ago after experiencing the 49er Fire in 1988. He recounted the recent fires on the Ridge and how very lucky our community has been. Boyd mentioned the little known fact that late on the night of October 8, 2017, NSJ Fire responded to a power line that had been blown down on Highway 49 near Heesche, igniting a fire – which was quickly doused, but continued to re-ignite due to the energized line that was not turned-off for many hours. By that time, during the middle of the night Cal Fire was the team to manage that incident, while NSJ Firefighters were sent to do structure protection in Rough and Ready – the night of the Lobo and McCourtney fires in Nevada County and intense fires in seven other Norcal counties. B.C. Johnson encouraged everyone to find a way to assist the NSJ Fire Department through becoming a Firefighter, Auxiliary member or office administrative volunteer. Even a few hours a month helps.

Jo Ann Fites, Fire Scientist had many examples and photos to share of her 30 years of experience, especially studying major forest fire behavior in the West for the Forest Service. Jo Ann was adamant that fire behavior can be modified by proper stewardship of lands, sensible fire resistant building materials and plantings. Spacing of trees to minimize crown fires and especially managing the ladder fuels along driveways, roads and within 100’ of a structure. When asked what the minimum requirements are, she suggested they could even be doubled and is seeking funding to provide abatement along major evacuation routes of up to 200 feet on both sides of the road. This would create a safer passage, while providing a valuable fuel break for firefighters by clearing of understory, removing trees adjacent to roadsides, cleaning the forest of dead and dying trees, and reducing the number of trees per acre to a sustainable number. (Minimum County standards are 10’ roadside brushing, with 15’ vertical limbing).

Donn Thane, Fire Safe Council of Nevada County Board Chair, shared how the FSC partners with fire departments, government funding agencies, the Firewise Communities and the public to provide education, chipping services, special needs assistance, defensible space advisory visits, community green waste drops, scotch broom challenge and hand equipment loaners. This volunteer agency has the most NFPA certified and in-training Firewise Communities/USA® nationally. That benefit means they have the experience to bundle projects county-wide and make best use of the programs they are always seeking grants for. Their services are available to all who ask and the commitment of its volunteers to serving our communities is undeniable. Donn mentioned the Tyler Foote hazardous vegetation removal project is expected to begin within the next three weeks, with brushing from Sages Road through to North Columbia Schoolhouse.

Chris Friedel, Yuba Watershed Institute Executive Director presented the mosaic of ‘Inimim Forest parcels. This patchwork of BLM encompasses nearly 2000 acres nestled between private property on a 30-mile long narrow ridge between the South and Middle Yuba Rivers. Chris described the YWI’s long term vision is a healthy, diverse forest that is home to both wild creatures and human beings and is ecologically and economically sustainable over centuries. To this end, members are involved in research projects for the understanding and protection of our native flora and fauna as well as for the development of a forest-based human economy. Chris showed maps of restoration work accomplished and work in-progress. YWI’s success in earning grants from Cal Fire is hampered only in its lack of deep-pockets to fund work done by contractors, ahead of reimbursement by these grants. So work proceeds more slowly than is desired. However, this valuable partnership with BLM is a useful model for all of Nevada County and beyond.

Pat Leach, North San Juan Fire Protection District Board Member and Fire Safe Council Defensible Space Advisor message was directed at two issues: 1) lack of proper street and address signs; 2) driveway and private road clearing of understory vegetation on the Ridge. Both relate to the safety of the Fire District’s citizens and its First Responders. Lack of double-sided signage with 4-inch tall reflective numbers and letters on a green background, has caused many delays in Firefighters and EMT’s locating fire and medical incidents during daylight hours and especially on dark and stormy nights. Pat is passionate about informing neighbors about the benefits of working with neighbors to accomplish shared goals for their road clearing. And she will describe in person the advantages of becoming a certified Firewise CommunityTM to tap into the support available (financial and labor based on individual circumstances). Pat stressed the plan models have been developed, we just need to work together – and it does not require 100% participation.

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