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Be ready for that day

By Laura Petersen
Special to The Union


Ana Acton was monitoring the Rice’s Fire smoke plume on the horizon from her porch and thinking through her evacuation plan.

She and her family — life partner, 10-year-old son and mom in her 70s — live on 200 acres with lots of animals and a farm on the San Juan Ridge. The fire was burning five miles away, as the crow flies.

“We’re in the warning zone right now. Luckily I actually had a go bag with some essentials packed,” she said.

Those essentials included a week’s worth of insulin for type one diabetes and tools for her wheelchair.

Acton is the deputy director of Independent Living and Community Access Division at the California Department of Rehabilitation.

For years she has served as a vocal disabilities rights advocate. She sees emergency preparedness as a whole community planning effort, where everyone plays a role, no one gets left behind and neighbors help neighbors.

Preparing for wildfire comes second nature to Acton. On June 28, 1976, the year she was born, her parents lost their home and all their belongings in the Oak Tree Fire, a blaze that swept through Ananda Farm and destroyed 21 homes.

“Growing up, it was all about situational awareness. Living in this community requires a certain level of awareness of the devastation that can occur from these wildfires. It definitely gets you anxious but living here since the 70s you kind of know this is the reality.”

Acton has a support network to turn to during an emergency. Her partner, Jeremy and her brothers are skilled land managers and arborists who have created defensible space around her home. If she has to evacuate, she knows and can drive with skill in the dark every narrow, winding back road and river crossing. But she worries about those who aren’t ready.

Many low-income older adults and people with disabilities who struggle to make ends meet in Nevada County don’t have the resources to be prepared for wildfire.

Creating defensible space around structures is the single best thing a resident can do to protect their property, but it’s costly. A new county program aims to address this need.

As part of countywide emergency preparedness efforts, the county of Nevada’s Office of Emergency Services applied for and received funding from FEMA to support vulnerable community members with defensible space assistance. This has allowed the county to contract with Fire Safe Council of Nevada county to provide defensible space assistance by removing hazardous trees and flammable brush around homes for low-income homeowners who qualify for the program.

Providing free and affordable defensible space for low-income homeowners is one tool in the works to help create safer neighborhoods in Nevada County. But gaps remain as wildfire season heats up.


Mark Fenicle uses a wheelchair after Polio “affected him from head to toe” when he was a boy. At 72, he lives alone in a well-kept home he purchased in 2014 on Polaris Drive, located just off McCourtney Road, a five-mile drive from downtown Grass Valley.

Like 92 percent of Nevada County residents, Fenicle lives in a wildfire severity zone, that dangerous place where homes intermix with forest, also known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).

Several years ago, Mark Fenicle escaped the McCourtney Fire that burned 76 acres and destroyed 13 structures.

“For others with disabilities in a similar situation but with no close neighbors it would likely have been a tragedy, particularly if they had no vehicle and phone service was down,” he said.

Research shows that the mortality rate among persons with disabilities tends to be two to four times higher than among the general population, according to the United Nations.

“Older adults and people with disabilities are the people who end up dying in natural disasters. They are disproportionately impacted,” said Acton.

In Nevada County, nearly half of all residents are over 50 and 23 percent are over 65. According to county demographics, 12 percent of the entire population and 7 percent of people over 65 are living below the poverty line.

Fenicle serves on the board of directors for FREED, Center for Independent Living. He and others with the group worry that older adults and people living with disabilities without support and safety networks like family and financial security are particularly vulnerable in the event of a natural disaster like wildfire.

The McCourtney Fire was a wake-up call to him of the importance of defensible space.

Since moving to his property eight years ago, he estimates he has paid $50,000 in tree work and brush clearing to create a 100-foot defensible space around his home. He didn’t bargain for the ongoing land maintenance when he moved from the Bay Area to retire in Nevada County.

He has been able to pay for the work because he has good retirement from a federal job but many older adults and people with disabilities living in Nevada County struggle to live on a fixed income below the poverty line. For those folks, preparing for a disaster can feel like a privilege, a luxury they can’t afford.

“If you live on $900 a month and you are struggling to get by, emergency preparedness doesn’t become a priority for you,” said Acton.


The first phase of the two-phased federally funded Access and Functional Needs Program is slated to launch on-the-ground activities in July. Through the program, at-risk community members who are physically and financially unable to meet the requirements under the law for defensible space, will receive help removing flammable trees and brush from their properties.

Nevada County and Fire Safe Council have identified 45 pre-qualified homes that will receive defensible space treatment totaling 68 acres this summer. An additional 78 homes and a total of 117 acres will be treated by next spring.

A $4 million phase two grant award from FEMA will support defensible space treatment for 766 homes and 1,147 acres. The application period for residents interested in receiving these services is open now. Families of four with an income at or below $78,700 qualify for the program.

“There is still a lot of space in the program,” said Jamie Jones, executive director of the Fire Safe Council.

While any assistance is worth celebrating, there are noticeable gaps. The grant-funded programs cover only 75 percent of defensible space treatment; the remaining 25 percent of treatment costs must be covered by local match — either by paying out of pocket or contributing sweat equity to meet the treatment goals.

The estimated cost to do the work is about $6,655 per home, meaning that there is a $1,200 match needed for each property. Nevada County Office of Emergency Services is exploring options to partner with local non-profit volunteer bases to meet the need.

Other wildfire-prone counties in California have tackled the issue of sustainable funding needs with increases in sales tax or property tax. Last year, 83 percent of Truckee voters voted in favor of Measure T, authorizing an annual parcel tax of $179 per parcel generating an estimated $3,700,00 for wildfire protection each year for eight years.

With the funding, Truckee can cover the costs to improve emergency evacuation routes, clear defensible space around homes, neighborhoods and critical infrastructure like schools and provide free curbside green waste disposal for residents. The community can now fund Elderly and Disabled Defensible Space Assistance for those that cannot physically, or financially get the work done. The benefit is making sure every property, regardless of income, is doing fuel reduction work and creating a contiguous fuel reduction area.

“Sustainable funding would give the county the resources to provide the local match outright, removing this burden from already overwhelmed members of the community. Identifying secure sources of match funding is key to being able to increase the pace and scale of the effort by aggressively applying for FEMA funds, which require a 25 percent local match,” said Alex Keeble-Toll, Senior Administrative Analyst for Nevada County Office of Emergency Services.

But there’s another catch … funding does not provide assistance for renters or owners of mobile homes. The program is limited to homeowners, leaving those who rent or live in mobile home parks at the whim of the defensible space actions taken by their landlords.

Often, to make ends meet, people on fixed incomes live remotely, down winding dirt roads, far from town and services, in a guest house or trailer because it is the only affordable option, said Brian Snyder, emergency preparedness coordinator at FREED, Aging and Disability Resource Connection. Limited incomes and a dire housing crisis in Nevada County, make finding housing elsewhere near impossible.

“A lot of our consumers are low income and are not homeowners. They’re renters,” said Snyder.

“We’re dealing with a very vulnerable subset of the population that wants help now. We need better access to funding and there is an immediate need. I think we have an obligation to help our elderly,” said Jones.

Nevada County is actively looking into identifying additional programs that could help.

“I do think there is a future in building programs that will support renters and landlords like large-scale year-round green waste programs that are either no cost or low cost,” said Paul Cummings, Nevada County OES program manager.

“Anything we can do to bolster local Firewise communities through training, funding and equipment will secondarily benefit many of these renters that don’t qualify for existing FEMA programs.”


Providing defensible space is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preparing older adults and people with disabilities for natural disasters.

FREED is a nonprofit group that serves 2,000 seniors and people with disabilities annually. Last winter during the “snowmageddon” winter storm event, staff worked round the clock scrambling to help people who were left in the dark and cold for weeks, without heat, electricity, food, water, transportation or internet and phone service. FREED received 917 requests for service during the climate-induced emergency.

“I think the reality is the need is really, really great,” said Carly Pacheco, executive director of FREED. “We know from past fires and disasters, people with disabilities and older adults are the ones that die.”

Virtually all disasters disproportionately affect individuals with access and functional needs. This is a broad population group that includes people with disabilities, older adults, children, those with limited English proficiency and transportation disadvantaged, according to the Cal OES Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“It’s really those people who will need extra assistance,” said Acton.

When natural disasters strike, often the most vulnerable populations are hit hardest. This pattern has been repeated over and over during emergencies like the Oroville Dam spillway disaster, Hurricane Katrina, Lobo Fire and Camp Fire.

People who relied on public transportation were left stranded when drivers evacuated themselves. Deaf people didn’t get alerts on their phones and were notified only after neighbors came rapping on windows.

Some people who depend on equipment like oxygen machines and power wheelchairs or something as simple as a bedpan end up in nursing homes for weeks or months when they leave home in a hurry without the supplies they need to be independent. If someone is evacuated to a nursing home, getting out is much harder than getting in, cautions Acton.

“Those are the kind of scenarios we see time and time again,” said Acton. After studying cases for years, Acton and Nevada County staff have come to realize the power of knowing your neighbors is huge. “We have to do better. We have to come together to address these needs,” said Acton.

For a variety of reasons many older adults and people with disabilities are estranged from friends and families, don’t have a support network and can’t identify five people to call in an emergency. Snyder blames a John Wayne-style pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps culture in the U.S. that causes a reluctance to ask for help.

Another problem is that older adults rely on outdated communication tools and don’t use modern technology like smartphones or email. Despite all the outreach and education efforts, they may not “know their zone” or receive code red alerts.

“We tend to isolate ourselves for many, many reasons,” said Pacheco.

That’s why Nevada County has stressed the importance of neighbors looking after neighbors as a tool for wildfire preparedness and community resilience.

“What we need is a sense of interdependence and cooperation where we are all helping each other,” said Snyder.

Sustainable funding for county emergency service programming could go a long way to fund direct outreach to help people feeling overwhelmed and helpless. The idea is to create personal preparedness plans with help from first responders, nonprofit groups like 211 Connecting Point, FREED, Gold Country Senior Services, volunteers, friends and neighbors. Personal preparedness would empower people to know what to do in an emergency and help people evacuate safely, and with dignity.

During the winter storms and power outages, stories surfaced of neighbors taking food, hot water and supplies to house-bound neighbors. Reaching out to isolated individuals, checking in, and exchanging phone numbers is something everyone can do and helps ease the pressure on first responders who are trying to keep track of thousands of calls during a community-wide emergency.

For now, Acton says people living in Nevada County can take immediate action by thinking about who in their neighborhood doesn’t have transportation or might need a hand with overgrown weeds in the yard. Or that 85-year-old widow living down the street who lost her husband and is now living alone.

“I think that’s a really important piece, knowing who your community is. Nevada County is kind of this unique place. We’re small enough, we can actually get to know our neighbors. We need to think as a community, ‘Who do we know who we might need to check on?’”


Over the next several months, Nevada County is conducting a community survey to determine priorities and needs. Anonymous responses will help the County plan and prepare for the future.

Learn more and share thoughts here: http://www.ReadyNevadaCounty.org/Future

Additional Resources:

Interested in applying for the Access and Functional Needs Program? Learn more here: https://www.areyoufiresafe.com/programs/access-functional-needs-afn

Learn more about FREED Center for Independent Living: https://freed.org/

Find an Emergency Preparedness Guide/ Toolkit for Individuals with Disabilities:


Laura Petersen is a freelance writer who has spent two decades chronicling the stories of people and places in Northern California. On behalf of Nevada County, this is the third in a series of articles examining emergency preparedness. She can be reached at laurapetersenmedia@gmail.com

Mark Fenicle escaped the McCourtney Fire several years ago and estimates he has paid$50,000 in tree work and brush clearing to create a 100-foot defensible space around his home. He worries folks living on a fixed income can’t afford this cost. A county program is working to address this need.

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