County looks at fire ordinance |

County looks at fire ordinance

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

Annual predictions of a catastrophic fire season trotted out by fire officials are typically met with a healthy dose of skepticism, but in 2013, the speculation has proved alarmingly accurate.

California is burning.

About 8,000 firefighting personnel are deployed to fight a dozen wildland infernos burning at varying degrees of speed and intensity throughout the state.

It is within that context that Nevada County officials are considering the passage of a fire ordinance capable of supporting fire prevention efforts throughout the region, which retains a high susceptibility to wildland fire.

The regulation under consideration would provide the ability to compel private property owners to perform fire fuels management or contract with a third party to perform the work and charge owners via property tax bills.

"With all the fires going on around us, we would be remiss not to look at an ordinance," said Supervisor Ed Scofield.

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Supervisor Richard Anderson brought up Placer County's Hazardous Vegetation Abatement Ordinance during a recent board meeting.

"It would be nice to get (a similar ordinance) under way here," Anderson said in July.

The ordinance on the books in Placer County pertains exclusively to unimproved private properties — parcels without a habitable structure.

Further restrictions stipulate the county may intercede only if the unimproved property is within 100 feet of an improved parcel; hazardous vegetation also must be evident.

Scofield said the will to install a similar ordinance in Nevada County is counterbalanced by a significant contingent of property rights advocates who are likely to balk at a perceived intrusion.

"A number of years ago it was considered, but it became a property rights issue and went away," Scofield said.

County Executive Officer Rick Haffey said the proposed law would present practical problems.

Unlike its neighbor to the south, Nevada County does not maintain a county fire department.

Haffey said the board will still likely discuss such an ordinance during its annual January workshop.

"It should really be looked at," Scofield said. "Let the public come forward if there is opposition, but if not, it could be a very good deal for Nevada County."

Rui Cunha, the Placer County assistant director of Emergency Services, said concerns about government overreach are unwarranted.

In the five years since ordinance implementation, the county has yet to mandate or perform compulsory abatement.

"Most of the time we run (offenders) through a cooperative process," Cunha said. "Just having the ordinance, letting people know they can be compelled or the county can do the work and charge them, is adequate. It's just enough of a stick so that folks do the right thing."

Placer County passed the ordinance in the aftermath of the 2007 Angora Fire that burned 3,100 acres, destroyed more than 300 residential and commercial structures and cost $11.7 million to fight. A pilot program began in the eastern part of the county but migrated west to cover the entire jurisdiction.

Nevada County Consolidated Fire District already has a fire ordinance on the books that functions like Placer's.

Consolidated Fire compiled a list of approximately 20 properties in Alta Sierra targeted for improvement.

Joanne Drummond, executive director of the Nevada County Fire Safe Council, said she supports expanding the ordinance throughout the county and believes the public will support the effort.

Public approval is evidenced by several Alta Sierra residents who attended a spring meeting of Consolidated Fire's board and urged them to begin the program, Drummond said.

Initially, the board considered delaying the program but began implementation at the urging of those in attendance, some of whom offered to donate volunteer hours to the program, Drummond said.

"It does take a little bit of a hammer," Drummond said. "It's an important policy if (officials) get it through."

While much of the community remains haunted by the 49er fire 25 years ago that burned about 34,000 acres while destroying 312 structures in the region, Scofield said the 49 Fire (in 2009) that began at the intersection of Highway 49 and Creek Road in a relatively populous portion of North Auburn was of more concern.

The rapidly spreading fire consumed 343 acres, 62 houses and two businesses.

"That is a worst-case scenario for Nevada County," Scofield said.

"It could happen if areas are not maintained to standards."

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email or 530-477-4239.

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