Nevada County lacks funding for fire safety
For decades, increasing fire safety and reducing wildfire risk have been priorities for Nevada County residents; soon the Board of Supervisors will find out if the public is willing to pay for those priorities.
Nevada County officials are looking into a tax measure to fund hazardous vegetation reduction and public safety evacuation efforts that could go on the November ballot.
During their annual workshop, the Board of Supervisors received updates about their wildfire preparedness priority from emergency services officials who made the case that the county needs to increase their fire safety efforts through sustained funding that grant funding does not provide.
“We know that in order to reduce the loss of life during wildfire, we recognize the need to improve our emergency evacuation communication system and provide defensible space in our neighborhoods,” County Executive Officer Alison Lehman said at the workshop. “I know this point has been made several times before (at the workshop) but we can’t build these programs dependent on grants.”
While the county has applied for more than $30 million in grants since the 2017-18 fiscal year, $26.1 million of that money is still pending an award decision while $3.5 million was granted to the county in that time frame.
“Not only are we being extremely aggressive for a small rural community, but we’re competing higher than the national average in drawing out those funds and that definitely will continue,” Lehman said.
CLOSING THE GAP
Officials estimated an initial funding gap of between $5 million and $10 million to pay for their wildfire preparedness goals, which focus on creating safer evacuation routes, improving emergency communications, establishing defensible space by reducing hazardous vegetation, coordinating preparedness and improving critical infrastructure.
While these estimates are based on ramping up Office of Emergency Services projects, county executive office project administrator Caleb Dardick said the figures will be more solidified after input from cities, fire districts and the public.
“This gap is really just a starting point for our conversation,” Dardick said. “We need to be sure our ultimate numbers and our ultimate work plan, expenditure plan reflect the full input of all the stakeholders.”
While it’s too early to say specifically what the tax would fund, county officials are hoping to double down on efforts that have already shown results like the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone Project, which has treated nearly 100 acres ahead of its year-end goal. They hope additional funding will allow them to work on one similar defensible space project each year.
They are calling for a significant increase in their roadside vegetation reduction efforts to bring their current time line of clearing 560 miles of county-maintained roads every 8-10 years down to every 3-5 years. The county would need to move from a pace of 50-70 miles cleared each year to 120-200 miles a year.
“This will require a doubling of our present rate of county roadside vegetation removal,” Nevada County Sheriff’s Lt. Bob Jakobs said.
According to Jakobs, the county faces challenges of high levels of hazardous roadside vegetation, a need for serious roadway infrastructure improvements and the need for more comprehensive evacuation route studies and plans which together present significant wildfire threats that need to be addressed immediately.
“While we have training protocols and plans in place, more needs to be done to make evacuations safer for both our residents and first responders,” Jakobs said.
The county also aims to speed the treatment of the 1,500 miles of private roads in the county up to 300 miles per year, increase the number of defensible space advisory visits from about 700 inspections last year to 1,500, up their residential chipping and green waste disposal programs and increase support for firewise communities.
ASSESSING THE NEED
After collaboration from stakeholders, the county hopes to bring a needs assessment, time line and more details back to the board before a summer deadline to get the measure on this November’s ballot.
The county hasn’t determined whether the county-wide tax would be on parcels or sales, but depending on the final language of the measure it will likely need a two-thirds voter approval to be enacted. According to the county, a half-cent sales tax would generate about $8 million a year, about half the estimated funding gap.
At the workshop Supervisor Dan Miller said this policy would also intersect with a number of issues rural communities are dealing with.
“It’s hard to separate this discussion from talking about homeowner’s insurance and commercial insurance,” Miller said. “The number one thing that insurance companies are telling us, that fire professionals are telling us, that the state and federal government is saying, is vegetation management. We don’t have the resources to do it on a sustainable level. We have to something sustainable but we have to have community buy in.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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