Susan Rogers: Caltrans, highways and trees, oh my! |

Susan Rogers: Caltrans, highways and trees, oh my!

It’s challenging to think about wildfire risks during the winter, especially when it’s raining or snowing. But this is actually the best time to put some thought into the larger issues that affect our collective safety — the months when there is less immediate need to clear our own properties.

A couple of months ago, Caltrans asked for public comment regarding its State Route 49 Draft Safety Assessment Report, a 49-page document describing measures Caltrans proposes to take to improve safety on Highway 49 between McKnight Way and I-80 in Auburn.

Can you guess how Caltrans defines “safety” relative to highways? Hint: It’s all about preventing traffic accidents. Of course, we all should want traffic safety to be a priority of our state’s department of transportation. And for as long as Caltrans has existed, accident reduction has been accomplished with good planning, design, engineering and construction.

But in the past several years, another threat to our collective safety has reared its ugly head: the threat of wildfire along state highway evacuation routes (including Highways 49, 20 and 174 in Nevada County). Caltrans demonstrates no awareness of how trees and vegetation alongside many sections of state evacuation routes are a risk to you and anyone else who could be, at some future date, driving down the highway (or sitting in a logjam of evacuees) surrounded by towering flames.

So, the Nevada County Coalition of Firewise Communities (of which I served as the vice chair) voted in December to submit public comment to Caltrans on their draft report.

Our letter pointed out that despite its title “Safety Assessment,” the word “evacuation” appeared only three times in its 49 pages. All three mentions were on the same page, and only concerning plans expected to take between two and 10 years to implement.

Really? Safe evacuation in the event of a wildfire is one of the major concerns of western Nevada County residents, and State Highway 49 is one of our major evacuation routes. Shouldn’t an official “Safety Assessment” of this traffic corridor deal with evacuation safety in a substantial way, listing proposed projects that will be done far sooner than “between two and 10 years” from now?

The problem goes much deeper than this particular draft assessment. As I write this, there is nothing on the Caltrans’ website ( that mentions wildfire evacuation threat from trees too close to the highway. Some grant money is going to Mendocino County and Fresno County for projects involving evacuation planning, and there’s a research study looking at “evacuation and communications patterns as well as the ways in which populations relocate post-disaster,” all related to the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise.

But again, nothing is on their website about the evacuation threat from burning roadside vegetation. The Cal Fire requirement for local roads is 10 feet cleared back from the shoulder – this is the standard that you as a Nevada County property owner must meet. But if you drive south on 49 from McKnight Way through the overhanging tree tunnel, or go out Highway 174 toward Colfax, you’ll notice that Caltrans is seemingly exempt from this requirement. In many places, trees are immediately adjacent to the road, if not overhanging it.

A local fire scientist has advised the Coalition of Firewise Communities that while a 10-foot roadside clearance is enough to prevent radiant heat (from burning trees and vegetation) from affecting the ability of heavy-duty emergency vehicles to safely pass by, it’s not enough to protect people inside the typical passenger vehicle.

For that, you need a minimum of 20 feet cleared, or ideally 30 feet. (A side benefit of the extra clearance is that it allows more cars to move out of the way temporarily to allow fire engines and other responders to head in the opposite direction, toward the fire.)

You may ask, “How likely is it that we would burn to death in our cars because of roadside trees on fire? Wouldn’t we choose to drive in the opposite direction from the fire, on a highway where the roadsides aren’t burning?” Yes of course, in an ideal situation, all evacuation traffic would be directed onto roads where fire is not an immediate threat.

But think back to Paradise (and other California fires) where the fleeing population outnumbered the carrying capacity of available roads. You may have no choice but to evacuate through a fire area, or you may be in a bumper-to-bumper standstill in a non-burning area, only to find that blowing embers then put your surroundings on fire.

In our letter to Caltrans, the coalition said: “It’s imperative that Caltrans update its vision of highway safety to include fuel reduction on the sides of state highways in high-risk fire zones. Planning will not save us from lethal heat created by burning roadside trees and vegetation when we are sitting in our cars on a jammed Route 49 during a wildfire evacuation. Only aggressive fuel reduction, beginning now and continuing whenever weather permits, will save us.”

We asked Caltrans to revise the Safety Assessment to include projects creating not just 10 feet, but 30 feet of defensible space alongside the Highway 49 corridor in Nevada County.

Last week, we received a response stating they are “making wildfire mitigation on the state highway system a priority.” It pointed out that (as we already knew), “This is a multi-faceted, multi-agency task that will require extensive collaboration, planning and support for these projects along the SR 49 corridor,” but went on to say that they will “work to develop processes and projects to address them as quickly as possible.” Maybe I’m being naïve, but I believe they heard us.

Squeaky wheels get the grease. Members of the public (that’s you) can express your views directly to Caltrans on this issue, especially the need for speed. The contact name and address, along with our letter and the response from Caltrans, are on the Coalition website at – click “Advocacy,” then “Caltrans Highway Roadside Clearing.”

Susan Rogers served for more than three years as the vice chair of the Nevada County Coalition of Firewise Communities, and is now on its advisory committee. She lives in Grass Valley.

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