Hundreds pack Nevada County town hall on wildfire safety | TheUnion.com

Hundreds pack Nevada County town hall on wildfire safety

Local firefighters had a message to deliver.

"You provide the defense. We provide the offense."

That message was heard by an estimated 450 concerned residents in person — and an untold number listening on KVMR and watching online — during Wednesday's Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Town Hall. The town hall was held in the Nevada County Board of Supervisors chambers at the Rood Center. But even planned overflow upstairs was not enough to hold the crowd, many of whom want to prevent the kind of catastrophic wildfire like the one in Paradise that killed 85 people.

Personal preparedness was hammered home by a panel of experts including Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard, Sheriff-Elect Shannan Moon and California Highway Patrol Commander Lt. George Steffenson on the law enforcement side; Cal Fire Interim Unit Chief Brian Estes, Grass Valley Fire Division Chief Sam Goodspeed, Grass Valley Fire Chief Mark Buttron and Nevada County Consolidated Chief Jim Turner on the firefighting side; and Public Works Director Trisha Tillotson and OES Director Steve Monaghan representing Nevada County.

"The mantra you will hear is unified response," Estes told the crowd. "No one agency can do it alone."

According to Estes, the drought California has been experiencing is historic but not abnormal. The difference in the last five years, he said, is the amount of drought-stressed fuels, with an estimated 124 million standing dead trees throughout the Sierra Nevada.

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Significant wind events also have played a part in causing some of largest and most damaging fire in recorded history, Estes said.

The Cal Fire unit chief, who was born and raised in Paradise, called the Camp Fire an anomaly, saying, "It was truly a series of events aligned at every single point along the way."

What can be done?

Moon discussed her office's role in helping with evacuations, highlighting the need for residents to be prepared and know their evacuation routes. She suggested as part of their personal preparedness plan that residents have a designated meeting spot, drive evacuation routes, make sure their vehicles are gassed up, and can get out of garages and from behind gates if the power is out.

Monaghan focused on the county's Code Red emergency alert system, noting heightened awareness of the system after an estimated 75 percent of the room indicated they were already signed up.

Gammelgard and Steffenson talked about assisting during evacuations, with Gammelgard saying the county would be able to draw additional resources from outside the county. Like others on the panel, Gammelgard stressed the need for residents to be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice.

"When we're knocking on your door at 3 a.m., there's no time to decide what you're going to bring," he said.

Goodspeed and Tillotson highlighted fuels management, with Goodspeed detailing the clearing efforts currently underway in Nevada City and Tillotson highlighting aggressive roadside vegetation management on county-maintained roads.

Turner circled back to personal preparedness, telling the audience, "You doing your part gives us the opportunity to do what we've trained for."

A wake-up call to action

The second half of the town hall was a question and answer session. Some common themes emerged from the concerns, with several highlighting issues that arise when property owners don't adequately clear vegetation. Turner noted that a complaint-driven county ordinance can trigger inspections of private roads.

"We would work with the property owner to mitigate the hazard," he said.

Scott Allen, who has been involved with a Highway 49 safety stakeholders committee, said some lessons from the Camp Fire were clear — Nevada County needs a four-lane highway, as well as shelter in place zones.

But Allen had other concerns as well, including the communications infrastructure and the lack of adequate cell service in many parts of the county.

And he had some simple suggestions, including signs on residences that property owners could hang to indicate to first responders if they had safely evacuated.

"It's a low-tech solution," Allen said. "But something that simple could make your job easier."

Allen also urged community-wide drills, adding, "We've had our wake-up call. We have to act on it."

The community of Alta Sierra is working on signage similar to what Scott suggested, county staff said. This year, emergency drills were conducted there and in Lake Wildwood, with more slated for next year.

Nevada City councilwoman Reinette Senum asked for a low-tech warning system like a siren.

"Fifteen years ago, we did have a horn on top of City Hall," Goodspeed said. "It is no longer functioning, but we could look at making that operational."

That suggestion was championed by others in the audience. The notion of bringing back sirens is gaining traction statewide, Estes noted, but cautioned against over-use.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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