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Strict Fire Rules Are Fuel for Debate

Rural county's proposed plan for brush removal is called a 'strategy for deforestation.'

September 27, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

ROUGH AND READY, Calif. — With authorities in scenic Gold Country warning that the stage is set for another catastrophic wildfire, Nevada County recently approved one of the most aggressive fire safety plans ever drafted.

The plan, which may not become law until next year, would require that brush be cleared at least 100 to 200 feet around structures -- three times the minimum state requirements. It would also demand that property owners remove and thin 80% of the vegetation on lots up to 10 acres in size, potentially costing them thousands of dollars a year.

"Some people say we are killing the forest to save it," said Nevada County Supervisor Peter Van Zant. "But this is a very complex issue."

The bitter controversy surrounding the plan underscores the difficulty facing growing communities in rural regions across the state as they struggle to devise practical responses to the threat of wildfires.

The trouble, as they say, is in the details.

County authorities, seeking to avoid a repeat of the '49er fire of 1988, which destroyed 180 structures and charred 30,000 acres, concede that they approved a plan they have no funds to implement, let alone enforce.

Beyond that, critics say it unfairly burdens homeowners by failing to apply the same guidelines on brush clearance to lots larger than 10 acres and all but ignores the importance of fire-resistant building materials in a region that has roughly 3,000 pending applications for new home construction.

In the divisive atmosphere of a local election season, the plan ostensibly designed to protect property and lives in a county of 96,000 people has become so controversial that even some of the supervisors who voted for it are having a hard time explaining their vote."The pressure to approve it was like after 9/11 when people were waving flags in other people's faces," said Supervisor Barbara Green. "I couldn't say no to mom and apple pie, even if I knew it was rotten."

Supervisor Sue Horn put it another way: "There are reasonable concerns about the plan. But we had to start somewhere."

That kind of talk has stirred odd alliances and mounting opposition.

"If the county was serious about brush clearance, they would have put the financial burden on everyone," said Joey Jordan, president of the Federation of Neighborhood Associations. "What good does it do me to clear-cut my 10 acres when the 1,000 acres next to me is left untouched?"

Nancy Weber, director of the Nevada Irrigation District, dismissed the plan as a "strategy for deforestation."

Amid the squabbling, property insurance companies have begun warning homeowners that their policies may not be renewed because of their proximity to brush in a county where 80% of the roads are narrow dead-end country lanes far from the nearest fire station.

Yet real estate prices are soaring. In 1997, the average home in Nevada County sold for $178,000. By 2003, it had increased 99% to $354,000.

"For years, people have been able to pick up the phone, get an insurance policy and then transfer the entire risk to a carrier for less than $1,000 a year," said local insurance agent Jeff Dunning. "Not anymore."

With fuel moisture dropping to red-flag levels and emergency response times running 15 minutes, homeowners who could afford to do so had already started attacking their forested acreage with weed whackers and manzanita-chomping masticators.

Some hilltop manors are now surrounded by mini-moonscapes of dirt. Many backcountry lots have been cleared of brambles and vines once used as forage and hiding places by deer, turkey and bear. Posters in local government buildings read: "Brush: Fear It, or Clear It."

The situation is particularly unnerving for transplants from the Bay Area and Southern California who expected to find all the amenities of their more urban pasts. Today, the picture-postcard Sierra foothill communities of Grass Valley, Nevada City and Rough and Ready are abuzz with the sounds of chain saws and chippers.

Earlier this year, lifelong environmentalists Barbara and Don Rivenes set aside dreams of making their remote ridgeline property more attractive to wildlife. With the help of hired crews, much of their brushy mountain spread has been transformed into a park-like setting that fire authorities call "a model of defensible space."

"There will be fires that no amount of defensible space will protect," explained Barbara Rivenes, the local Sierra Club representative. "But we believe this will help people who moved up here. After all, there are so many of us now."

At the Owl Tavern in Grass Valley, bartender Max Roberts said the fire safety plan's emphasis on aggressive brush removal signals a new direction in the region's history, one that portends exponential growth.

Pouring a glass of locally produced cabernet, Roberts said, "The idea of striking a balance with nature out here is over. We're on the brink of a population explosion we haven't seen since the Gold Rush.

"What's screwing up this county are out-of-town retirees who want to bring their big-city ways with them," he said. "Now I'm wondering whether to stick around. I don't like the direction we're heading."

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