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Fire plan moves ahead

Laura Brown
Staff Writer

After five years and numerous iterations, the county planning commission approved a fire plan to get the “ball rolling” and establish a benchmark for protecting property owners from wildfire.

Now the fire plan goes to the county Board of Supervisors for final approval.

The planning commission’s resounding approval to address wildfire risk by amending the safety element of the county’s general plan came despite criticisms earlier this summer by the Nevada County Grand Jury, which recommended returning the “teeth” to the plan.

“I don’t know that any of these (plans) makes everyone happy. I think it’s a starting point. We can’t afford not to start,” said chair Laura Duncan.

“It’s been five years. Let’s move on,” said District 1 commissioner Ruth Poulter.

The general plan’s safety element gives background information and emergency preparedness guidelines in the event of natural and manmade disasters, such as earthquakes, flooding and avalanches. In February, county supervisors directed the planning staff to incorporate the fire plan, adopted late last year, into the county’s general plan.

Much of the fire plan’s recent criticism came after it shifted from requiring mandatory compliance with the state’s defensible space laws. Now the plan serves as a guideline for property owners who volunteer to clear vegetation around their homes.

Limited county funding and manpower to enforce the state’s 100-foot clearance law spurred the Board of Supervisors to change the language of the fire plan and tone down the county’s responsibility.

Two people addressed the commission at Thursday’s meeting with concerns about the newest version of the plan.

“As a guiding document I think it has a lot of weaknesses. I don’t see many responsibilities for the county and that’s distressing to me,” said Nancy Weber, a resident of the Lake Vera and Round Mountain Area.

Robert Ingram from Citizens for Property Rights said the new plan will confuse property owners.

“We wanted a simple plan for the public, for land owners. It’s a confusing document for the land owner who doesn’t know what he’s doing on his property,” said Ingram, who wanted to see tougher guidelines for flammable pine needles and chipped material.

Within the new plan are 56 recommendations separated into cost and no-cost categories.

“The plan has a long history and has gone through the economic washing machine,” said District 3 Commissioner Paul Aguilar. “Safety is tough. Safety costs money.”

Recommendations with associated costs will require approval by the Board of Supervisors before they can be implemented, according to a staff report prepared by project planner Jessica Hankins.

Planning staff continues to work on an educational document that will give tips and tools for property owners to effectively defend their homes from wildfire.

“The fire plan is basically turning into two different documents,” Hankins said.

Conducting a study for funding a countywide system of strategically located water storage tanks in rural areas, holding public fuels management seminars and providing financial aid for landowners to clear their land are among suggestions that would cost the county money.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors, recommendations with no costs will become part of the general plan, including the adoption of defensible space standards and an annual progress report by the county fire marshall to the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors will make the ultimate decision on how much money they want to set aside for fire safety, and in the future can make those changes as the need comes, Aguilar said.

“Now it’s up to the governing body to say let’s put that money away,” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.

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