Other Voices: 2nd units a problem in fire-prone areas | TheUnion.com

Other Voices: 2nd units a problem in fire-prone areas

We have a special problem in our neighborhood. Whenever that seasonal north wind blows hot and strong during the dry summer months, I think about what State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan, then California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection battalion chief, said when she spoke to The Lake Vera/Round Mt. Neighborhood Association about the threat of wildfire in our neck of the woods: “The killer fire in your neighborhood will be one which comes up out of the South Yuba Canyon,” she said.

“It will be driven by a 30 mph north wind. It will quickly become a crown fire and spread south through the Lake Vera-Round Mountain plateau. The speed of the fire could easily equal that of the 49er fire, and it will burn until it reaches a defensible fuel break.”

This fire will overwhelm fire suppression resources and we will have little choice but to evacuate. Hank Weston, once the ranger unit chief for the CDF, in a letter addressed to the county Planning Department spoke to this evacuation issue: “I recently had the opportunity to review the land use maps for the area north of Nevada City … This area, which has been designated by the CDF as being in a ‘very high’ fire hazard severity zone, is currently served by an inadequate road and circulation system … Due to public safety issues that will be compounded by further development, we urge you to remedy the road and circulation issues before allowing the potential for further development in the area.”

That was Weston as ranger unit chief in 1995 speaking to the issue of second units, the option to put a second home on a parcel zoned for just one single family residence. But Weston, now as county supervisor in 2007, has made an about-face and now supports that very development he earlier opposed.

The ordinance that allows two homes where the zoning would allow only one has been the subject of much deliberation. There isn’t space here to recount that history in any detail. The essential point for our neighborhood (and four others as well) is that an important component of the earlier ordinance has been omitted.

A number of homeowners, those who live in areas of high density, served by a road-shed that came to a focus at a single exit point allowing only one way out in a wildfire, expressed their concerns. Responding to those concerns, Consolidated Fire District identified five areas of particular concern. That earlier BOS graciously accepted the fire district’s recommendation and this exemption was built into the resulting ordinance which then stated: “The parcel [on which the second unit is to be sited] cannot be located within one of the Restricted Fire Areas … These areas include the Brooks Road, Cement Hill, Road, Greenhorn Road, the Lake Vera/North Bloomfield, and the Red Dog/Cascade Shores areas.” That protection has been removed in the new ordinance.

It is not clear that all members of the current board understood the full impact of the ordinance they passed. Supervisor Nate Beason, for example, maintains that the new ordinance is the functional equivalent of the old Granny Ordinance, but for the age restriction.

But he has overlooked entirely the evacuation issue. He, and other members of the board, may have assumed that the current practice of applying state fire codes (4290 and 4291) is sufficient. But this fails to consider the evacuation issue altogether.

The state standards provide assurance only that the occupants can safely get on and off the property itself. It does not address the broader issue of evacuation from that point on, both for the occupants and for others in the neighborhood who must use the same escape routes. State fire standards only assure that you can join the free-for-all on the existing evacuation routes.

But even if the board did not appreciate this vital distinction, why would they dismiss the advice of local fire professionals and not explicitly include the recommendation of CFD in the revised ordinance?

There are those who say that a few more homes won’t hurt. In any given year they may represent only a small percentage increase, but over the years they add up. And they will be particularly significant to those who occupy these second units and find they are trapped in a wild fire, as were those who couldn’t escape the Oakland fire. There must be some place where these homes are more appropriate.

We have taken a mail-in poll within our Lake Vera/Round Mt. Neighborhood Association asking our members whether they support the following recommendation: “The Lake Vera/Round Mt. Neighborhood Association will join with Brooks Road, Cement Hill Road, Greenhorn Road, and Red Dog/Cascade Shores area to petition the board to reinstate the ban on 2nd units in these areas with grave evacuation issues in a wild fire.” The response was 92 percent in favor of this recommendation and 8 percent opposed.


Jim Hurley lives in Nevada City.

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