A key obstacle that blocks the implementation of public policies designed to prevent catastrophic fires, save lives and homes and enhance the health of our forestlands is the race of time. How public officials and firefighting agencies react in the aftermath of the devastating 49er Fire in North Auburn, which destroyed 63 homes, three businesses and burned 343 acres, will be a critical test of our collective will power. If, by the time the rains shower on the Sierra Foothills, public officials have not enacted new and stronger policies to prevent catastrophic fire in our community, we will have missed an opportunity to secure public safety and safeguard the natural beauty of the area.
In 2002, I ran for Auburn City Council and helped start the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council because I was upset with the sleepy “It’s not my job” attitude of officials whose duty is to prevent catastrophic fires from roaring up the unmanaged American Canyon into town. We have made progress in creating a 300-foot wide Shaded Fuel Break along the American River Canyon and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to assist private landowners in removing wood fuel from their properties. Still, I’m not satisfied. Hundreds of homes and businesses in the city remain vulnerable to a catastrophic fire.
To prevent a catastrophic fire in the city, we have strengths and weaknesses. Our strength is the capability of our firefighting services. Bound together by mutual aid agreements, local, state and federal firefighting agencies automatically respond to the outbreak of a fire and devote all their ground and air resources to the effort.
Our continuing weakness is poor public policies at all levels of government, which allows continued build-up of dangerous wood fuel on private and public lands. No amount of firefighting resources can stop a fire amid a dense fuel load coupled with wind. And yet, state law only requires a 100-foot clearance around a home but doesn’t address private properties that have lots of weeds and trees but no structures. Responsible people who do everything they can to create defensible space around their home are still vulnerable to losing their home if their neighbor does nothing. That is wrong and dangerous.
The situation on federal lands is even worse. In October 2008, the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), which owns the most of the American River Canyon, abruptly cancelled an agreement with CalFire to remove wood fuel and suppress fires. If the federal BOR continues thwart city officials, remaining an irresponsible absentee landlord in the American River Canyon, someday the residents in the City of Auburn will pay a terrible price.
To safeguard our city, we must do two things. First, our local ordinance must ensure that every property in a high hazard zone in the city has sufficient defensible space. If not, the city must do the job and send the property owner the bill. Second, let’s circulate and turn in a petition with hundreds of signatures from Auburn residents expressing our anger that the federal BOR is endangering our citizens. The time to act is now.