Virtual town hall addresses Nevada County wildfire concerns (video) |

Virtual town hall addresses Nevada County wildfire concerns (video)

A late-season storm brought cold temperatures and what seemed like plenty of rain to western Nevada County early this week.

But that additional precipitation has not improved the outlook for this year’s fire season — and likely will make the load of grass fuel worse than before. That was the stark warning issued by Cal Fire Chief Brian Estes at the start of a virtual town hall Thursday designed to address the county’s wildfire preparedness.

Nevada County residents were invited to join the town hall and ask questions of a panel that included fire chiefs from Grass Valley, Nevada City, Washington, and Nevada County Consolidated fire districts, as well as Nevada County Office of Emergency Services Program Manager Paul Cummings, Emergency Operations Coordinator Lt. Robert Jakobs and Public Works Director Trisha Tillotson.

A large portion of the town hall was reserved for the question-and-answer session, which ran the gamut from fire insurance to defensible space inspections and evacuation routes.

Estes noted that California saw a less severe fire season last year, as compared to 2017 and 2018. But he outlined several concerns for 2020, adding he will declare the official fire season on Monday.

“The snowpack was at 59% of normal on May 1,” he said, adding the recent rains will have no effect on that. Grasses are already higher than average, and those rains will provide another few weeks of growth.

Cal Fire will go to peak staffing in early June, Estes said.

On a positive note, Estes highlighted the work that is being done on the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone Shaded Fuel Break, a strategic clearing project that started last fall.

Hand crews and heavy equipment have been working on the project nearly every day and are “way ahead” of schedule, said Cal Fire Division Chief Jim Mathias.

So far, they have treated 859 acres and should be done in two months at the latest, Mathias said.

“The fuel break will protect more than 3,000 residences, defending the city of Grass Valley against wildfires,” he said.

Cal Fire has more staff on the Washington Ridge hand crews this year, despite COVID-19. And although public participation in wildfire drills has been called off, fire personnel still will be training on Banner Mountain, Estes said.

Tillotson highlighted a $868,000 grant from Cal Fire that will allow the county to add 100 miles a year for its county road vegetation management program. Part of that grant will go to hire a registered forester and to hire contractors to work with the county crews. Roadways will be prioritized based on a number of factors, including whether they are in a “severity zone,” Tillotson said, adding a list is not available yet.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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