Susan Rogers: Fire moves faster than the law
With our collective consciousness pretty much overtaken by all things pandemic-related, it’s not easy to remember that wildfire remains a major threat to us here in Nevada County. (The rain beating on my roof as I write this today doesn’t help maintain our risk awareness, either.)
But Mother Nature waits for no one, and warm weather will soon be back again. Many residents here do a great job preparing their defensible space, and many others don’t — some because they don’t care, and others because they are unable to do the work themselves and can’t afford to pay to have it done.
Compounding the danger from properties that aren’t fire safe is the problem of current laws (other than the ones related to defensible space around buildings) which have not kept pace with our ever-increasing risk from wildfire compared to when those laws were first written.
I will describe two such laws here. (For this article, ordinances will be considered “laws” since they are legally enforceable.) The first would be a relatively easy fix. The second would likely be very difficult to change. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth bringing up for discussion.
1.) Everyone loves a campfire. We are hard-wired to enjoy sitting around watching the flames, as our species has done for thousands of years. But do that in a forest, and suddenly you have a situation where safety depends totally on the level of knowledge and degree of caring by those creating and monitoring the flames.
Within Grass Valley city limits, outdoor fires are presently allowed only in an “approved warming device,” defined as “a portable or fixed, outdoor, solid-fuel-burning fireplace that may be constructed of steel, concrete, clay or other noncombustible material. It may be open in design, or may be equipped with a small hearth opening and a short chimney or chimney opening in the top. All devices shall be equipped with spark-arresting screens.”
I live at the back of a dead-end neighborhood that was created before county road ordinances were written. We were annexed by the City of Grass Valley around 2001. Except for one cul-de-sac developed in the late 1990s, none of the roads here meet code for emergency ingress and egress. It’s an evacuation nightmare, with very difficult access and turn-around for fire equipment at probably 80% of the properties.
In the unincorporated county, all local fire districts have adopted California State Code Section 307, with wording essentially the same as the city’s except there is no requirement for a spark-arresting screen. Also, recreational fires must be at least 25 feet away from a structure or combustible material, and a fire extinguisher or “other approved on-site fire-extinguishing equipment” must be available.
Uniformity across all jurisdictions would reduce confusion and improve community education efforts. How about: in every part of Nevada County, any recreational fire must have a spark-arresting screen and have some type of extinguishing device nearby. Personally, I’d like to also see a ban on all outdoor recreational fires where the adjacent evacuation roads do not meet current code. (Those who want an outdoor fire can get a patio unit fueled by propane.)
This last idea, while an important safety move within the city limits of Grass Valley, would probably be unpopular with unincorporated county residents.
2.) This is a big one: undeveloped parcels (i.e., those with no habitable structures on them). These are the bane of fire-nervous residents everywhere, because many undeveloped parcels are disasters waiting to happen, overgrown with years of vegetation and rarely visited by an absentee owner.
What can be done about these? Nothing, really. There is no state law or local ordinance requiring vegetation management on undeveloped parcels except for that part of the land that’s within 10 feet of a state highway or county road.
Obviously, no level of government could require that giant, multi-acre parcels be cleared down to the ground. But don’t our state, county and cities need to catch up with the times? How about a law requiring owners of undeveloped parcels, say within 1 mile of another parcel with a habitable structure on it, to create and maintain a certain level of hazardous vegetation management?
The argument would raise the issue of private property rights. Should undeveloped parcel owners be forced to spend money to maintain their lots just because other people built their houses within 1 mile? Well, in some cases, the undeveloped parcels were purchased after (i.e., with full knowledge of) adjacent development. Property ownership comes with responsibilities. Trees and plants never stop growing, California has a recurring drought problem, and overgrown forests and wildlands have contributed to recent devastating fires.
I don’t know the answers to these problems. I get that living here is a constant, ongoing, expensive battle against Mother Nature, and who’s going to pay for that? Some people will probably post comments online suggesting I’m some sort of enviro-nutcase. So be it.
My goal here is to simply point out that wildfire hazards to property and lives have increased in this state, in this county and in our three incorporated cities (including the town of Truckee) since many of the laws were written, and some of these laws are now inadequate.
Governments have a lot to keep track of, and now with the fallout of the pandemic, there are even more pressures on budgets and staff. We citizens will have to step up and lobby for changes to keep us all safe.
Susan Rogers, who lives in the city of Grass Valley and is active in local fire preparedness organizations, is a member of The Union’s Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Editorial Board or its members. She can be reached at EditBoard@theunion.com.
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