Terry Lamphier: Electeds still adding fuel to fire
Will it never end? After a year of destroyed businesses, lost jobs, and tragic (and arguably avoidable) deaths, you’d think we could take a break and enjoy the return of normalcy.
Nope, now it’s fire season (already!), following last year’s worst fire season in California’s history. We’ve already had one significant fire a few short miles west of us, with likely more to come, despite enhanced utility hardening, brush clearing and the like.
So what are our local city and county elected leaders doing about our perennial and growing threat? As signatories to the county’s annual Ready Nevada County handbook, all give lip service support to standard generic advice about fire preparedness but no one is willing to slay the dragon — voicing concerns about adding massive housing developments to our evacuation-impaired community.
Despite this region being characterized by our state’s leading fire experts as having “high/extreme fire danger,” moratorium is not even in our electeds’ dictionary.
CalFire gets it. Add California’s recent attorney general, Xavier Becerra (now Biden’s health secretary), who backed lawsuits opposing development in high wildfire hazard areas and, as quoted in The Union, said, “Local governments must address wildfire risks associated with new development at the front end.”
Some land use planners get it. Pam Figge, land use professor at Chico State, spent years as a reporter covering the Butte County Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. “When it came to developing Paradise, it was anything goes. The loudest citizens wanted no governance, and the supervisors were more than happy to comply,” she said in the excellent article “Gone” in the California Sunday Magazine in the July 31, 2019, edition.
Some national journalists get it. New York Magazine’s David Wallace’s article “Paradise lost” in 2019 quoted environmental historian Mike Davis’ comments to Wallace as they “toured hills ravaged by past fires and — redeveloped and reinhabited in their wake”: “Firefighters have never stopped a wildfire powered by Santa Ana winds.”
From the same article, quoting Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: “There’s no number of helicopters or trucks that we can buy, no number of firefighters that we can have, no amount of brush that we can clear” that will stop fires.
Some public service organizations get it. Elizabeth Weil and Mollie Simon, writing for ProPublica.org in 2020, question years of building new housing in high fire zones: “We need to get a whole lot smarter about where and when we build.” In building houses in wildland/urban interfaces, the new houses “are essentially big piles of fuel.”
So what do we get from our electeds, our five county supervisors, five Grass Valley and five Nevada City elected officials, our county sheriff in charge of public safety? Zip, nada, unless we are talking about building more housing.
One Nevada City council member, commenting recently on a unanimously approved 71-unit development, gushed in The Union: “I think it is entirely appropriate in our community … I’m not going to stand in the way of this project at all.” The vice mayor said the project “was scrutinized from top to bottom by the council, planning commission and members of the community …. I’m looking forward to this.”
Meanwhile, the county and the city of Grass Valley continue their cozy pro-development relationship with the massive Loma Rica housing development, a project long supported by our District 3 (Grass Valley) supervisor and past city council member Dan Miller and his pro-development friends on the Grass Valley City Council.
Recall that under Miller, the city was sued for liability concerns on building housing under our Nevada County Airport’s flight path, and the city voted to assume liability rather than curb development. His rumored preferred replacement next election is a recently retired long time city council member who never seemed to find a development she didn’t like.
Here’s the thing about leadership, whether it’s about local electeds or entrenched Trumpist congressmen: True leaders such as Elizabeth Cheney are willing to take a stand, no matter personal cost, by acting for the greater good of the whole community, not just promoting false memes to get elected (for example, conflating the need for affordable housing for locals with market rate housing for commuters and urban refugees).
Let’s hope that our next election cycle sees true leaders emerge, not just populists serving narrow, arguably manufactured interests that truly do not serve our community.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
Full disclosure: I believe that recent dramatically accelerating climate changes are real and dangerous and I support attempts to mitigate effects. That said, new state housing legislation and proposed local fire mitigation taxes that directly…
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