TO: Nevada County Superintendent and Supervisors
Grass Valley Mayor and City Council
Nevada City Mayor and City Council
Last night I attended the Wildfire Safety Meeting at the County Center hoping to gain some new information about planning, readiness, prevention and mitigation efforts prior to the next devastating wildfire. I was disappointed. We heard the same old story about how all the agencies work together, the history of wildfires in California, this will be the worst fire season ever, and they are all concerned and doing their best with limited resources. Have we not learned anything from recent catastrophic fires?
I came away with the feeling that our leaders are oblivious, or in complete denial of the magnitude of the risk our communities face. They offered no new solutions. Our communities are sitting ducks waiting for the inevitable. Code Red will fail as it has in most recent wildfires and evacuations will be a deadly mess, just as in Paradise.
Mostly I point the finger at our City and County leaders. The fire and law enforcement agencies are in the business of response. This is a much bigger problem and response is not the way we will save lives. Let's face it. We live in fire country. Hundreds of fires are going to happen in Nevada County this summer. Depending on the climate and topography at the time and location of those fires, one of them may erupt into a major conflagration (i.e. Paradise) and no amount of suppression will be able to stop it for days or weeks. After all, Consolidated Fire only has 8 – 12 personnel on duty at any given time and CalFire only has a handful of engines in our area. These resources may or may not be 100% available when it erupts. The new normal is for fires to grow quickly and spread rapidly. By the time resources can arrive, a Class I overhead team is needed. This is just the result of the laws of economics and of nature and the decades of neglect in forest management. The notion of reducing fuel load is a good one but it will take decades, if ever, to accomplish. We need something better, NOW!
There are only two things that we can control that will save lives (forget about property, it is a given that 100's or 1000's of structures will be lost): early notification and evacuation. Both of these were ignored last night. Let's take them one at a time.
Notifications. Code Red is the go-to solution. But in this technology era, Code Red relies primarily on cell towers. We know from experience that in a major fire, cells towers will be either overloaded from use or out of service due to the fire. Code Red works well for day-to-day events. But it has proven unreliable in most major fires around the state. A more reliable system is needed that will be effective even when people are sleeping. Certainly, one very viable, simple, reliable and cost-effective solution is the re-introduction of warning sirens. By information I have been given by the Office of Emergency Management, these sirens can be installed for approximately $5000 each. A half dozen of these sirens strategically placed around our communities could cover a majority of the population. Add a few more and you would have nearly 100% coverage. Why is this, or some other thoughtful solution, not being discussed or implemented? Why do we keep relying on a proven weak link? If the Cities and County can't come up with 50 grand, then at least offer technical and logistical support to neighborhoods to fund their own sirens.
Evacuations: We know from the fate of other communities that our narrow, twisting, two lane (or in some cases, one lane) roads are not conducive to a speedy evacuation. Darkness, confusion, smoke and fire all add to the problems. Many of our major city and county roads are so overgrown that a fire would impede passage making evacuation impossible. I can speak of conditions in my own neighborhood that Brunswick, Idaho Maryland and Banner Lava Cap would be made impassable by fire in overhanging vegetation and in the road right of ways. Ground brush and trees are common right up to the asphalt surfaces. It was noted that there are twice as many private roads as there are public roads. True, but all of those private roads eventually empty into the major public roads. The public roads must be able to carry the volume of traffic and not be hampered or cut off by impinging fire. This is clearly preventable by a little elbow grease of getting crews (inmates, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts) out to clear the right of ways on public roads the same as required on private roads.
All in all, we have not heard much coming from our local governments about what is being done to improve these lifesaving factors; notification and evacuation. Yes, it is easy to say citizens have to be responsible for their own safety. But then why do we have government services if they are just going to push it back on citizens when the going gets tough? Government needs to step up and take the lead. Why do we not hold exercises in various sections of the county so that citizens can get a feel for what it is like to evacuate all at once. This might be instructive for both public safety agencies and encourage residents to get out early. How about more public education on how to evacuate (leave your trailers at home)? Where are the PSA's, radio shows, Good Morning America? Human life is the priority. For people who have pets or animals, they must get out early. Once an evacuation is ordered there should be no trailers allowed. How are our local radio stations being utilized to broadcast evacuation routes? How about signage for evacuation routes? Why are the Cities and County not organizing volunteer work groups (supported by public employees) to clear roads that need to be cleared? A LOT could be learned from the efforts that are being made in Alta Sierra. Why are private land owners not being required to manage their property and reduce fuel loads? Why are we not seeing emergency ordinances being proposed such as to require public and private landowners to clear brush along emergency evacuation routes? There is so much that could be done. You just need to put someone in charge of getting it done.
According to the experts, the chances of a deadly wildfire in California this year are 99.99%. Let's just call it 100%. I have not heard and I am not equipped to calculate the probability for Nevada County. But the nation and the world know that we are at ground zero. So where is the plan to mitigate loss of life? Where is the think tank, work group, task force …. something dedicated to working on this impending crisis? Government's primary role is to protect the lives of its citizens. To do nothing is irresponsible, at the least. In my opinion, we need a Wildfire Mitigation Officer, with one administrative assistant, who reports directly to the City Mangers and County Executive Officer. He/she can then form his task force from existing department's and be given priority and resources to accomplish something.
Folks, at this point, I have given up worrying about our homes that we will lose. I have accepted that reality. But I don't want to be the next national news story about dozens of human fatalities from a California wildfire. That is exactly where we are headed if we don't tackle early notification and organized evacuations. As residents and elected officials, our communities are facing an overwhelming impending crisis. We cannot allow ourselves to give in or succumb to cognitive dissonance. Now more than ever, we need leaders of foresight and action. I believe we have bright people. For the life of me, I do not understand why we do not see more proactive measures.
Retired Fire Chief/Emergency manager