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Report: Fire plan fails citizens

A Nevada County Grand Jury report released Wednesday recommended the board of supervisors return the “teeth” to the county’s fire plan, still in the works after five years.

The report also called for more public education to improve fire protection and lower insurance rates.

“The (board’s) approval of their modified fire plan does not provide the governmental structure or funding process originally envisioned by the fire plan committee, and fails to meet Nevada County citizens’ desperate needs,” the report said.



The fire plan committee, composed of five local fire experts, held 18 meetings and 15 workshops to draft the plan. Final approval by the board is expected later this summer.

The grand jury report, echoing the concerns of many residents, was released in the same week that large fires broke out in surrounding counties. The fires were a grim reminder that another fire season is in full swing.




The report took a critical look at a board meeting in April when supervisors shifted their focus from “mandates and requirements to persuasion and cooperation.”

The board’s action “significantly reduced” the importance of the fire plan.

At the time, the board changed language in its fire plan to make it more clear who was responsible for enforcing state laws concerning a 100 foot clearance of brush from homes, District 4 Supervisor Hank Weston said Wednesday.

Original wording in the fire plan was changed from “the county should implement policies” to “as desirable and as funding becomes available,” the report said.

“We had to make it honest. We wanted to make sure the state has law enforcement responsibility,” Weston said, explaining that the county doesn’t have resources to fine people if they don’t comply with the state’s 100 foot clearance law that became effective in 2005.

“You can almost interpret ‘teeth’ as ‘spending the money,’ and we don’t have the money,” Weston said.

Chairman Ted Owens agreed.

“The grand jury has failed to indicate where any funding would possibly come from to put the ‘teeth’ back into the fire plan,” he said.

Financing was the most critical issue for fire agencies in 2005 when a Municipal Service Review on Fire Protection and Emergency Services was prepared for LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission). At that time, revenue for fire protection was flat while wildfire threat was growing.

In the works since 2003, the county’s fire plan was recently folded into the safety element of the county’s general plan to serve as a guide for how to build and plan for wildland fire safety, Weston said.

In two weeks, the plan will pass before the planning commission before going to the supervisors for final approval.

Among the other findings:

• “Many residents of Nevada County are not aware that the county has no statutory duty to provide fire protection services within the county and assumes no responsibility for providing these services,” it said.

• In spite of limited budgets and staff, cooperative efforts have to date allowed the various fire agencies to perform their fire suppression functions in an adequate manner,” it said.

Meanwhile, across the state a number of wildfires have ignited across the drought-stricken landscape early in the dry season. Nevada County is considered a fire-prone environment with a number of homes built in or next to dry forests.

Recently, insurance companies have stopped writing insurance policies in Nevada County because of the increasing risk of catastrophic fires, the grand jury report said. A “great disparity” exists among fire agencies in the scope and quality of service they provide, the report found.

Fire suppression has been adequate thanks to cooperation among fire agencies but citizens do not receive “equal levels of fire services across jurisdictions within the county,” the report found. Some fire agencies in the county are losing well-trained emergency professionals to wealthier districts, to CalFire and to the United States Forest Service, the report said.

Insurance rates could be favorably influenced if voters approved increased financing for fire protection, the report also concluded.

The grand jury recommended the board request LAFCO to commission a study to determine an accurate of fire protection in the county and begin a public education program to increase public awareness of fire services and how they can be financed through public-approved dollars.

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


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