Terry Lamphier: Fire evacuation plans? Think again
As Grass Valley City Council continues to turn our town into an urban suburb that most of us live here to avoid, they ignore our new reality — approval of construction of hundreds of new, locally unaffordable houses increases everyone’s fire danger by further burdening our already inadequate streets and our “make it up as you go” evacuation plans.
Should Grass Valley planners and council be prohibited by pending state legislation from implementing a construction moratorium, they still have tools available.
Grass Valley’s general plan is sort of like a community “bible” — there are sections that support almost any position. Historically, city planners select parts of our general plan to justify non-conforming land use, ignoring other sections of the general plan that provide a legal framework for denial of projects. Very few proposals come forward that are in total compliance to land use and zoning regulations, but the Council uses general plan “findings” and “mitigations” to allow otherwise prohibited projects.
A construction slowdown is important because there are no practical or realistic community evacuation plans, a lesson we should have learned from our immediate neighbors to the north.
“Paradise presents the nightmare scenario: a community so aware of wildfire risk that it regularly conducted fire-evacuation drills, but whose roads out were so few and so narrow that, when the fire actually came, the evacuation turned into a deadly traffic jam.” – The Week (June 21).
“In a matter of hours, 52,000 people from rural Paradise and surrounding communities evacuated onto roads built for a fraction of that capacity.” — Supervisor Ed Scofield (quoting Gov. Newsom), The Union (June 19).
“Decades of greed, neglect, corruption, and bad politics led to last year’s Paradise fire, the worst in California history. It should never have happened. It will happen again.” — Mark Alex, author of “Gone,” The California Sunday Magazine (July 31).
“76% of Nevada County homeowners live in elevated and extreme fire danger areas” — a recent Nevada County press release.
“You are naïve if you think our experience would be any better if we’re unlucky enough to have a massive wildfire. We already know our fire departments are understaffed … you’ll be largely on your own when it comes to escaping the flames.” – George Boardman, The Union (Aug. 26).
Our own Nevada County Grand Jury knows the danger. Grand Jury members represent a cross spectrum of beliefs and ideologies but in the matter of fire safety, they are in agreement. Here are excerpts from our 2018-2019 Nevada County Grand Jury’s report: “Facing Year-Long Fire Seasons: Are We Prepared?”
“Some fire experts believe that Nevada County is just as vulnerable as Butte County … others say it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the next big fire will occur.”
“Evacuation routes may include anything traversable by vehicles in case of emergency (dirt roads, trails, pastures, drainage ditches, etc.).”
“In 2018, only $442 was spent on zoned evacuation planning … there is no comprehensive County fire evacuation plan.”
“There are approximately 600 miles of County-maintained road, and 2,200 miles of private road in the County … up to 75% of the roads in the county may not be maintained in accordance with best practice … some private roads are simply considered “no go zones” for fire engines and other emergency response vehicles if a fire occurs.”
And most relevant: “many communities in the county were simply not built with evacuations of a scale commensurate with their current populations in mind. This problem deepens as communities continue to grow.”
Mark Alex’s prior-mentioned “Gone” article highlights lessons that Grass Valley council members need to hear: “the four men and one woman who sat on the (Butte County Supervisors) board acted as little more than minions for a handful of developers, builders, and realtors … suburban sprawl wasn’t generating enough taxes and fees to fund sufficient roads, sewers, fire and police services … in the case of Paradise, the town was expanding without the necessary infrastructure … scores of housing tracts popped up without sidewalks or buffers to provide a defensible space against fire …”
Council options? The Union’s Editorial Board wrote that “we should consider a moratorium on building in wildland areas.” South Lake Tahoe’s interim fire chief “is working on the evacuation plans for the city … preparation is the key.” Nashville, Tennessee is buying up and bulldozing properties prone to repeated flooding (“As floods keep coming, cities pay residents to move” (Sac Bee, July 7).
Why is Grass Valley’s City Council silent on this issue? What is the pro-growth Nevada County Contractor’s Association’s position?
Terry Lamphier is a former Nevada County supervisor who lives in Grass Valley.
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