Terry Lamphier: Fire safer is not ‘fire safe’
The destruction of our nearby neighbor, Paradise, has been a wake-up call for state and local public safety officials, resulting in critically important community educational outreach efforts. That, combined with the fact that we have a major fire-fighting airbase and somewhat different terrain than Paradise can, however, lead to an unwarranted complacency regarding local fire danger.
While government entities are to be applauded for their “fire safe” education efforts, with inarguably important recommendations for improving survival odds, the best outcome we can hope for is that we will be fire-safer, not “fire safe.”
What Paradise (the “Camp Fire”) should have taught us — and public officials have done a great job of side-stepping — is that while improving residential fire safety and awareness is important, the odds of disaster and personal tragedy will remain high and likely only get worse. It is unconscionable for our elected officials to continue to avoid an honest assessment of our specific challenges.
By now, everyone should have received some form of the “Ready Nevada County” multi-government publication on fire safety, with its emphasis on brush clearing, home hardening, and evacuation strategies. It’s a good and useful publication, as far as it goes, but avoids some hard truths.
This is something that needs to be done on a regular basis to be effective and, without robust government oversight with a real threat of heavy fines, will be effective only until fire disasters fade from the news cycle. Further, as a practical matter, it is unrealistic to assume that even robust enforcement will protect us, unless it is region wide, comprehensive and ongoing. Private party litigation alone will continue to likely leave a number of “hot zones” for the months or years it takes to go through the courts (and, people being what they are, unpopular government actions typically lead to loss of office). Brush clearing is, at best, only temporary and will likely be limited.
The statistics are grim. Notably, as brochures point out, suggested tips can create a fire-resistant home — not “fire safe.” The Camp Fire burned all but 18% of homes built prior to new 2008 stricter State fire code construction standards – and burned 52% of post fire code homes. Statistically, your new home has less, maybe a lot less, than a 50-50 chance of survival.
There are reasons that the brochure offers only vague recommendations.
Officials likely are avoiding making any specific evacuation route recommendations because of unpredictable, changeable wind directions and speed of wildfires, with falling trees, stalling cars, smoke and panic potentially compromising any evacuation route. Specific “Code Red” evacuation recommendations could lead to liability lawsuits from survivors. This is assuming that officials are even able to communicate to the public, as electronic communications failed in the Camp Fire, leaving law enforcement to drive around with bullhorns.
Also our recent experiences with disaster evacuations, be it fire threats or failing dams, show that evacuation times typically exceed disaster time lines. Danger threatens at home and (noting that some Paradise victims died evacuating) on the road. The disaster is likely to have passed by time one reaches relative safety.
Paradise’s Butte County supervisors punted when numerous fires predating the Camp Fire threatened their community. There were calls for a growth moratorium but the official response was what Nevada County and city leaders are relying on now: increased fire awareness campaigns, stricter home construction standards and emphasis on brush clearing.
Do we continue to add hundreds of homes to our Cal Fire-designated “very high or extreme” fire danger area, or do we take a “time out” and do an honest assessment of where we stand and what options we may have?
Government planners currently utilize “road-loading” analysis tools every time developers propose new homes or businesses, projecting impacts and imposing mitigations to reduce the likelihood of gridlock. A starting point for understanding our disaster risks would be for government planners to add “worse case” scenarios (“disaster evacuation loading”) and, as flood planners do, assigning statistical likelihood of events. This would improve disaster evacuation planning and guide planners as to best new development locations (if any).
The risk is, of course, that it will reveal there are no solutions, putting our growth-friendly government leaders at risk of lawsuits from developers denied profiting from their speculations.
There is a critical need to rethink rural growth that puts private profits before public safety. It is the responsible thing to do.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
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