Susan Rogers: Imagine 99 RVs evacuating onto McCourtney Road
250 RVs could evacuate onto McCourtney Road to escape a wildfire on a peak-occupancy summer day if a proposed new RV park is approved by the Grass Valley City Council across the street from the Nevada County Fairgrounds’ RV park.
This proposal is on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, Jan. 25.
The fairgrounds website map shows 103 existing RV spaces. The proposed new park would add 147 more. The developer does not own the land. County records as of Jan. 13 show it’s owned by “Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento.” (Long-time residents may remember a former plan to build a Catholic church there.)
Members of the public have had three chances to comment on this proposal: two Planning Commission meetings and (only because commissioners directed staff to make it happen) a meeting for residents of nearby neighborhoods.
People who live nearby certainly deserved that opportunity to weigh in. The developer’s agent says they added an emergency exit onto McCourtney in response to residents’ concerns.
But what about everyone else who would need to drive on McCourtney during a wildfire evacuation or be on highways 49 or 20 to evacuate? Most would live outside city limits.
With pandemic precautions in place at city meetings, comments can be submitted only via email or phone. I suggest this constrains elected and appointed officials from truly comprehending the weight of potential wildfire evacuation risks created by increasing the potential number of RVs in the area by 150%.
At the December Planning Commission meeting, commissioners asked Grass Valley Fire Chief Mark Buttron for his assessment of evacuation risk. Buttron spoke about using CodeRED, having a Go Bag, being situationally aware, knowing your evacuation zone. He was spot-on in stating that an evacuation plan requirement relative to vehicles is of little use in a true emergency since the fire may come from — and quickly turn in — any direction.
What I didn’t hear from anybody — in city staff’s printed report, the developer’s agent’s presentation, commissioner comments, or the fire chief — was discussion of the on-ground reality of up to 250 RVs trying to flee a wildfire.
In advisories on wildfire preparedness, the Nevada County Office of Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s Office (in charge of major wildfire evacuations) asks residents to not take their trailers or RVs with them when evacuating (with one exception: leaving far ahead of any actual need to leave, while all roads are clear). This is because (as we all know) vehicles towing trailers have very limited maneuverability. You can’t turn around easily, and evacuations may require turning around. Or you may need to quickly pull over so a fire engine can pass.
According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA.org), 90% of recreational vehicles are towables. (If you were envisioning monster motorhomes lined up on McCourtney, scratch that. The huge ones are less than 3% of the market, with all motorized RVs totaling 10% of the market.)
If the Office of Emergency Services and the evacuation authorities don’t want us taking our trailers, how is it OK for the city to approve the potential of 132 vehicles towing trailers (90% of 147 possible RV guests) evacuating right across the street from nearly 100 other RVs coming out of the fairgrounds?
Let’s say a fire is coming from the west. The average towable RV is 28 feet long. The average tow vehicle is about 17 feet, plus 1 foot for the hitch. It’s 2,500 feet from the corner of McCourtney and Auburn roads to the Highway 20 onramp east to 49 (currently F-rated by Caltrans for its poor level of service). Do the math. Only 54 bumper-to-bumper towed RVs could fit on that stretch.
Right behind them will be another 150 or so vehicles towing trailers, plus many hundreds of Nevada County residents evacuating in the same direction in their passenger vehicles.
What if 49 south is creeping, or stopped? Some drivers could go south on Auburn Road, but not west on McCourtney (where the fire is). Imagine trying to siphon off some of this congestion to Mill Street or Freeman Lane. Really?
I totally get that a new RV park would bring desirable tourist business (including transient occupancy tax) to the city. But the parcel is currently in the unincorporated county. The nearest highway interchange is substandard and controlled by Caltrans.
The city proposes annexing the parcel plus adjacent acreage to provide sewer service. How can be it OK for only city staff and city fire officials to publicly advise the City Council on this proposal when it is currently a county parcel and any wildfire evacuation would involve hundreds of county residents, and county and state emergency responders?
It is wrong to not give maximum consideration to evacuation risk. The parcel itself and much of the surrounding area is in a Cal Fire-rated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.
Who will pay the price if wildfire comes and people die in their vehicles? Not those who developed it, promoted it or approved it.
While I totally respect the city staff, who are intelligent people doing what they are trained to do, I suggest the process for evaluating and approving developments such as these, in this new era of vastly increased wildfire risk, is highly flawed. The people of Nevada County deserve better.
Susan Rogers is a 21-year Grass Valley city resident. She has been active in local wildfire preparedness for more than four years.
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