Other Voices: Reflections on the county fire plan
With the final hearing for the fire plan over, reflection is deserved on why it took five years to accomplish what, no one is exactly sure.
In defense of the county Board of Supervisors and county staff, and all counties in California, they did the best they could under very undemocratic circumstances.
It started with George Bush’s “Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003” – an oxymoron of such huge proportions you could laugh, but when you look at how many millions of dollars were wasted on the “thinning programs” (see Tom Knudsons’ article on the Pineros in the Sacramento Bee as only one example), you want to cry, considering the ecological damage done.
So began the institutionalized clearing bandwagon which everyone jumped on because as one USFS firefighter then tree cutter told me, “this is where the money is.”
The states followed suit in passing their own fire laws and SB 1369 sponsored by Democrat Sheila Kuehl from Southern California was passed. It reads like a section from 1984 by giving tremendous power to state/county fire officials and insurance companies while trumping private property rights.
This far-reaching powerful piece of legislation which updated the 1963 Public Resources Code 4291 was passed with no public hearings under the guise it was an “emergency.”
PRC 4291 was then exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act. No guaranteed funding came with it. After the updated 4291 was passed by the legislature in 2005, it was promptly dumped on the counties.
As I suggested to the Board of Supervisors a few years ago, it would be more appropriate for the counties to get together and sue the state rather than try to sort it all out at taxpayer’s expense.
You cannot really blame Nevada County for taking five years to finalize the plan – they have been chasing to catch up with these regulations and in the process, eating the costs, while worried about taking on the liability. This was destined to become one big fat mess.
Planning groups were dominated by firefighting professionals. The groups should have included biologists, landscapers, arborists, the general public, and fire prevention/gear professionals (companies that sell barricade gel products, extinguishers).
It placed a tremendous burden on the public and still does.
People were worried about their loss of private property rights, as they should be. People are still concerned about the unchecked power of the county and state fire agencies, as they should be. SB 1369 gave fire officials more power over your land.
The clearing is “backfiring” and even more dangerous vegetation is growing back (Scotch broom and annual grasses). Cleared or “thinned” areas upon which millions of tax dollars were spent (Quincy as only one example) burned anyway – a phenomenal waste of money.
The plan did not focus on the latest science which is that wind causes catastrophic fires and any fire plan should be framed around this fact. The science has also proven that homes cause fires and are more flammable than native vegetation thus bringing up the obvious question – why do we permit homes in high fire hazard areas?
The supervisors have never taken responsibility for the greatest hypocrisy of the whole fire safety issue – relaxing the steep slope ordinance in 2004 to make it easier to build on steep slopes. Fire is worst on steep slopes.
Clearing places stress on wildlife. It removes the understory or cover for wildlife and opens them up to greater predation. It wipes out what they eat – manzanita, deerbrush and buckbrush. Clearing focused heavily on manzanita and demonized this beautiful plant.
Clearing creates a false and possibly dangerous sense of security.
Fire clearing is being used to illegally clear land that would otherwise have to comply with CEQA and a host of other environmental protections and permit requirements. The illegal clearing is not fair to landowners who do the right thing and spend thousands of dollars to do so. The county is fully aware this is going on.
The plan overemphasized clearing. There are many other effective things that can be done: Deal with the issue of fire and human behavior (cigarettes, public service messages to educate the public), train people on how to use barricade gels, reinforce homes against fire with structural changes (like steel roofs), and use proper home design, etc.
If, indeed, the fire planning process is an adaptable one, hopefully these considerations will make it into the next version of the plan, which would better represent the citizens it was meant to protect.
Virginia Moran is a biologist who lives in Grass Valley.
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