Terry Lamphier: Will candidates add (housing) fuel to the fire?
“I can tell you that Nevada City and Grass Valley are at the top of the list for cities that could be wiped off the face of the earth if a fire gets started” — Senator Brian Dahle, 9/30/20, The Union.
“There’s only so much defensible space we can clear … so much of this county remains wild and untamed. It’s one of the reasons we live here” — The Union Editorial Board, The Union, 8/22/20
“California spends billions but is vulnerable to big fires” — Sacramento Bee, 8/28/20.
We all know we are vulnerable to the horrors that thousands have lived through but we continue to live in denial that it will happen to us, despite very recent fires, even bordering Grass Valley’s downtown core. We all know that putting homes in the wildland urban interface is dangerous to the homeowners themselves and the community at large, via inadequate or impractical escape routes.
We are all aware, or should be, of the increasing strains on firefighters and law enforcement forced to save homes and homeowners instead of fighting fires and facilitating evacuations. We know from the Paradise fire that more than 50% of “fire hardened” homes burned. We know that it is nearly impossible to find affordable fire insurance.
We know, or should know, that taxpayers statewide socialize the costs of firefighting, police rescues, utility upgrades, insurance, funds to compensate the newly homeless, funds to compensate lost business or the businesses themselves and so on. We subsidize the cost of those of us who choose to live in dangerous terrain, whether living in fire-hardened homes with cleared space, living in older homes on brush-choked acreage, or living in our local housing developments served by roads built in the last century.
Anyone following the news knows that every year the situation is worse, with more lives and homes lost and costs to everyone statewide now in the billions, including to the millions who live in relatively safe urban areas.
So what’s to be done?
Senator Dahle, Governor Newsom and others support the short term solution of tree removal and brush clearing. That approach, to be successful, must be repeated every few years at great cost and funded by you, the taxpayer.
Major access roads, such as Highways 49, 20 and 174, are getting taxpayer funded multi-million dollar expansions that enhance evacuation options but at the expense of our rural and tourist-oriented charm.
While we can’t reasonably expect people to give up their rural lifestyles, we can and should ask hard questions of our elected leaders and candidates, especially those who advocate for building more houses in one of the most dangerous areas in the state.
Every election cycle we have candidates stating we need more housing (with token amounts of “affordable” housing) but they ignore major challenges, such as:
More housing without practical evacuation routes endangers all of us.
Most locals can’t afford what developers like to call “affordable housing” (developers use statewide metrics, not local economic reality to set prices).
Cutting trees to build houses adds to climate-changing carbon loading, increasing fire danger.
The cry for affordable housing never addresses “for who?” Where do these people live now?
The rationale for home ownership (the “American Dream”) arguably no longer holds true. Traditionally, home ownership meant having an investment in community (safety, stability, community involvement, etc) and building personal wealth (equity). In recent times, home purchases are no longer primary home lifetime purchases, leaving communities with more transient home ownership.
Clearing more forests and building more houses reduces our value as a tourist destination.
We have a nearly self-sustaining community, with enough service jobs and small businesses to meet our local needs, with no need to be a feeder town for “down the hill” commuters. We need electeds who cherish our community by demonstrating the courage and commitment to prioritize fire safety in any proposed community development — before adding more fuel to the fire.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
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When the Caldor Fire erupted in El Dorado County, evacuees were asked how they were doing. One replied by saying that this is what happens when they fail to manage the forest. I couldn’t help…