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Another big one could happen here again

To hear fire officials tell it, another wildfire the size of the epic 49er Fire could happen not just once but repeatedly.

Though fire departments have consolidated and become staffed with more professionals, the prevalence of the next big one hasn’t lessened, and people need to be more vigilant of the dangers of fire here, according to Nevada County fire officials.

“Unfortunately, memories are fading” of the 49er Fire of 20 years ago, said Jeff Wagner, chief of the then all-volunteer North San Juan Fire Protection District that first responded to the blaze. “It will happen again.”



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Many firefighters concede more public education is needed. The onus is still on land owners to clear underbrush and keep trees a safe distance from their homes.




Laws now mandate 100-foot “defensible space” rules around homes and a greater emphasis on safety, but many residents do not comply.

It’s an often difficult education process, said Tim Fike, who serves as chief of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District.

“They understand what they’re supposed to do, but for whatever reasons, they don’t always do the work,” Fike said. “There needs to be a significant reduction of the brush, on a landscape scale, to reduce the fuels in Nevada County.”

Becoming impatient, some insurance companies increasingly are canceling homeowner policies, citing the fire danger, as The Union reported earlier this year.

Tahoe’s Angora fire last year was a stark reminder of the financial risks.

“That’s frightening, isn’t it?” said Boyd Johnson, who started his firefighting career months after the 49er Fire, started when a homeless man lit toilet paper on San Juan Ridge. “The frequency of some seemingly stupid act, combined with the vulnerability of our area, means that it can happen over and over again.”

The conditions that spark such an uncontrollable fire are unpredictable ” just as the lightening-caused fires from earlier this summer. In hindsight, firefighters said the 49er Fire still would have been difficult to prevent.

“There’s nothing to say that (the 49er Fire) wouldn’t be as destructive now as it was then,” said Fike, who was a volunteer for the Watt Park Fire Department when the 49er Fire broke.

“We have better technology,” he said, such as foam to fight fires, computerized cameras, more staffing and professionalism. But he added, “We are never going to beat what Mother Nature can throw at us.”

As tomorrow’s 20th anniversary of the 49er Fire looms, firefighting officials hope people will never forget what fire can do.

“I’m hoping that day will come and go … that people will use the opportunity to think about the dangers,” said Johnson, chief of the North San Juan Fire Protection District. “Fire is an element of risk when you live here that’s not in other places.”


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