Norm Sauer: Catastrophic fire an imminent danger to all
On June 25, I read of a transient arrested for, among other things, leaving fire unattended along Deer Creek. Shortly thereafter I hear the fire scout and fire suppression planes leaving Grass Valley airport. It is hot. It is dry. We are at the start of — really, well into — the fire season in western Nevada County.
We who live in Nevada County are at grave risk of catastrophic fire that threatens our lives, our homes and our health, not to mention our wildlife and environment. Summer has just begun and being in the midst of a serious drought our chaparral and forests are dry and getting dryer and more dangerous by the day.
The risk of catastrophic fire looms heavily upon our community. The elements for a catastrophic fire are fuel, topography, weather and irresponsible people.
What about our fuel load? As I reported in a prior article, the west slope of the Tahoe National Forest averages 300-plus trees per acre or 45 tons of dry fuel per acre. Due to drought the moisture content of this fuel is quite low and thus more susceptible to easy ignition, rapid burning and intense heat. Compounding the fuel risk our wildland/urban interface is a zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuel.
Topographically, the west slope is steep. Since heat rises, steepness of slope greatly influences fire behavior and rate of fire spread. Slopes with south and southwest aspects tend to be drier and more prone to ignition. Steep, narrow drainages and canyons act like chimneys when wildfires occur.
Weather-wise, we know that dry, hot and windy weather increases the likelihood of a major wildfire occurring. Thunder heads can bring lightning with no rain. We are aware that winds will visit our county during the summer and into the fall months of September and October. Conditions will become drier and more dangerous as the year progresses.
Compounding the danger of occurrence of catastrophic fire are illegal campfires, many of which exist in local transient camps. Local law enforcement and fire officials report they are finding more transient camps in the deeper, dense, and highly flammable brush, away from roads and out of sight. Not wanting to obey the rules against drugs and alcohol required by most shelters, the transient lifestyle puts our entire community at imminent and greater risk.
We must not forget the 49er Fire of 1988 which was started by a transient house-squatter on the San Juan ridge who was burning his personal waste. Due to a gusty north wind his fire went out of control and continued until it burned to the Lake Wildwood area consuming 312 structures and over 33,000 acres.
In the last two years there has been a large increase in transient-related fires, averaging 15 to 20 per year, reports our Grand Jury for 2014-2015 in a report entitled “Illegal Campfires Pose Imminent Danger.” It further reports illegal camping numbers have increased due to the influx of marijuana trimmers.
Our fire personnel call the combination of the above conditions “the Perfect Storm”: high temperatures, low humidity, abundant fuel, steep topography, a north wind, and irresponsibly tended illegal fires.
The residents of western Nevada County must come to understand the significant risk of wildfires that threaten us on a daily basis and the attendant costs of some.
While residents shouldn’t have to suffer from the threat of illegal campfires, even unwitting property owners should know they may have legal responsibility for costs and damages to suppress a fire started on their property. Property owners should therefore be diligent in surveying their property and working with local law enforcement to prevent illegal campfires on their property.
Most of us pay $150 a year fee for rural fire protection, although we’ve received little bang for our buck. In addition, all of us who live in western Nevada County pay higher fire insurance premiums. And, if we experience another serious wildfire that takes homes and/or structures, there may be cancellation of fire insurance policies.
So, please, all take heed: The Nevada County Grand Jury 2014-215 recommends we do the following:
— Report any individuals maintaining illegal camps in wooded areas;
— Be aware of what is happening on one’s property, and if camping is suspected contact local law enforcement and follow necessary procedures to get law enforcement involved;
— Call 911 immediately if a plume of smoke is observed.
Norm Sauer, who lives in Nevada City, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not reflect the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board.
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