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Fire threat: Different jurisdictions complicate vegetation mitigation efforts

Mary McClain figures something needs to be done about the vegetation along Highway 174.

McClain has praised the abatement of hazardous vegetation along roadways that serve as evacuation routes. However, she’s concerned over what she sees as no plan for Highway 174.

“I’ve called Caltrans, and they can only clear 8 to 10 feet along the roads,” she said. “There’s thick vegetation along Highway 174 and Silver Way, and I don’t think the abatement is adequate.”



McClain’s initiative began in 2019 when she addressed the Board of Supervisors in a meeting. Rich Adams, a forester with the California State Parks Sierra District, as well as a representative of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, soon got involved.

Supervisors wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom, stating, “These state highways are in dire need of immediate hazardous fuels mitigation.” The result was that 300 square feet of Empire Mine State Park was cleared in the fall of 2019.




“They cleared the brush and ladder fuels along the border with my house,” said McClain. “It was a fabulous result. I’m very happy with it.”

However, McClain remains concerned about the remainder of Highway 174 beyond her property, which she drives through every day. In the event of a disaster it could be her evacuation route. She also worries about her neighbors.

GETTING READY

Ready Nevada County is a website the county maintains to help educate the public in navigating successful outcomes during emergency events. It is designed to help prepare people for any emergency, with a focus on wildfires the most likely disaster to occur locally.

The “go” phase of the plan is for people to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice, if given the order, said Paul Cummings, manager of the county’s Office of Emergency Services. And that depends on reliable evacuation routes. However, Cummings points out that Highway 174 is a state road and although the county can advocate regular vegetation maintenance, it is up to Caltrans to perform mitigation.

Caltrans is in the process of clearing hazardous fuels, but it has one crew for Highways 49, 20 and 174. It was busy clearing along Highway 49 through North San Juan toward Grass Valley when a week ago it had to halt when an extreme fire danger was declared.

“We’ve recently done removal along Empire Mine State Park and at Silver Way, and definitely do what we can,” said Raquel Borrayo, Caltrans public information officer. “But there’s a prescriptive easement. That means Caltrans does not own parts of Highway 174. Some of the area is owned by State Parks and some is privately owned.”

It was the high temperatures a week ago that halted clearance and delayed it through the weekend. Even on days when crews can go out in the summer on exceptionally hot days, they must do a weather sampling hourly to check the wind (if too high) and the humidity (if too low), and must pause if the elements become extreme.

“We cleared hazardous fuels on Highway 174 down to Bear River, and then in Colfax it is the Auburn Yard (that assumes responsibility),” said Borrayo. “And with the extreme fire danger we cannot risk starting a fire. But until the weather clears we are limited at what we can do and we are working on enhancing funding to take care of the hazardous vegetation removal.”

The county’s Public Works Department is responsible for maintaining approximately 25% of the roads within Nevada County. Public Works has obtained a grant of $868,000 through Cal Fire from the California Climate Investment Program, under the aegis of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction funds. Public Works set a goal this year to treat 254 miles of road, and by the end of June had completed 61 miles of brush clearing.

Rich Adams is a forester with the California State Parks Sierra District. It’s responsible for clearing hazardous vegetation along the parts of Highway 174 that are outside Caltrans’ jurisdiction. It cleared a lot of dense blackberry bushes along the Gold Hill side of Highway 174 the third week of May.

Adams said it can be a difficult procedure. There are a lot of nesting areas for raptors and song birds. Crews must work without disturbing birds’ nests.

Another variable is State Parks often must supplement its clearance crews with help from the California Conservation Corps, U.S. Forest Service and inmate crews to complete the wide swath of its jurisdiction, 17 parks in six different counties.

One more consideration is the wealth of cultural artifacts left over from the mining era legacy. It is part of State Parks’ mission to protect the cultural resources, as it is a part of the region’s history, Adams said.

“We have to work within our limitations,” he said. “We really want to ramp up work.

“And absolutely Empire Mine State Park is our focus because that is where many of the residents are located,” he added. “Human life is our greatest concern, yet we have some things we have to balance. The fire threat can be nerve wracking, but I appreciate Mary’s (McClain) concerns.”

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com


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