How prepared are we?
and Laura Brown
Western Nevada County is vulnerable to the same type of catastrophic fire that is raging in Lake Tahoe, fire officials said Monday.
The situation – brought on by dry conditions – is compounded by longstanding challenges: an influx of people building homes, the need to draw up fire evacuation plans for more of the county’s neighborhoods and the need for residents to take fire prevention around their homes more seriously.
“It’s just simply a matter of time, and it will require a windy day,” said Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Chief Tim Fike Monday. “Pretty much the whole county is primed” for a bad wildfire, he said.
A lack of rain and snow this year has caused grass, brush and trees to be as dry now as they typically are in August, Fike said, with about one-third normal moisture.
Fields of scotch broom and manzanita are already 30-percent dead in western Nevada County and are extremely volatile, Fike said.
“The risk is greater than ever,” said Rob Paulus, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties. “The fuels are the lowest (in moisture) they have been in the 24 years we’ve been recording them, lower than the 49er Fire year.”
The 49er Fire of 1988 is a clear indication that catastrophes can happen here, fire officials said. The fire started at Highway 49 and Tyler Foote Crossing Road on the San Juan Ridge and scorched almost 34,000 acres all the way to the Smartville area, destroying 312 structures.
Dry conditions have created a number of large regional fires since last year, including the Highway Fire along I-80 near Truckee in late May, the wind-whipped Bassetts Fire near Sierraville and the Ralston Fire near Foresthill in September 2006, and the Dobbins Fire just over the Yuba County line in August 2006.
Earlier this year, Paulus said, fire danger spots in the western part of the county included Rattlesnake Road, Woodpecker Ravine, Alta Sierra, Banner Mountain and the Deer Creek drainage area that goes from Cascade Shores, along Morgan Ranch to Rough and Ready.
The drainage was used just last weekend for a wildland fire exercise with 200 Forest Service, Calfire and area firefighters in attendance, according to Grass Valley Police Chief Jim Marquis.
In the drainage area below the Morgan Ranch subdivision in Grass Valley, 75 to 100 structures can’t be seen because the manzanita is 15 feet high and “it’s 80-percent dead,” Marquis said.
Fike said the county has a flexible evacuation plan for natural disasters, and fire is ranked as the No. 1 threat.
The plan does not earmark certain areas to take pre-determined escape routes because that could send people straight into a blaze, Fike said. Instead, the county can utilize its inter-agency dispatch center and a new mobile command unit to let local media outlets broadcast safe evacuation routes on the Internet, TV and radio on a timely basis.
“There are too many variables to have a detailed evacuation plan,” said Vic Ferrera, program manager for Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services.
Some communities – including Lake Wildwood, Lake of the Pines, Alta Sierra and Cascade Shores – have drafted their own.
Fike estimates that 50 percent of Nevada County communities have a fire evacuation plan completed. Neighborhoods in the Rattlesnake Road and Banner Mountain areas have plans in the works but not completed, he said.
Drafting evacuation plans are expensive – as much as $20,000 to $30,000 – and grants to cover the costs are limited, Fike said.
More homes, same number of roads
The influx of people building homes in the rural portion of the county since the 1960s along narrow, winding back roads has added to the problem, according to Nevada County Undersheriff John Trauner.
“We have more people in the county now, and we have not built any more roads. It would be even more chaotic now,” Trauner said, if a 49er-like fire occurred.
Access routes are a “huge issue” but little can be done to remedy the problem, according to Mike Stewart, captain of Nevada County Consolidated Fire. “We’re somewhat limited by topography,” Stewart said.
People need to be responsible for their own safety in the event of a fire by knowing exit roads in advance. But too many times, people ignore the threat of fire and don’t take time for precautionary planning, Trauner said.
“People just don’t know their neighborhoods. It’s a big problem,” said Trauner. He recommends getting familiar with secondary and dirt roads in case the main road arteries are closed.
Fike estimated that only 20 percent of the homes in the areas outside Nevada City and Grass Valley have cleared defensible-fire spaces of 100 feet around them (see Page A1 story on defensible space).
“The logs on the ground are below the lowest (moisture) level of last year, which was also a dry fire season,” Fike said. “They hold and generate a lot of heat,” which is what is happening near Tahoe. “There’s a bunch of dead and dying (fuels) on the ground up there from years of having no fire in the woods.”
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@the union.com or call 477-4237. To contact Laura Brown, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4231.
Wildfire meeting today
A meeting to discuss the planning process for protecting the community from wildfire will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at the L.O.V.E. Building in Condon Park, 660 Minnie St., Grass Valley.
The public forum sponsored by the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County will assess wildfire hazards and risks in the county and how to diminish them. The meeting will be the first of several that will allow community members to set priorities for handling fuels, the plan timeline and how to implement it.
– The Union staff
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