'The deadly threat of fire creates an urgent need for new policies for wildfire preparedness which must be implemented without delay,' says the report, which was released Thursday.
(TNS) — A new report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury recommends the creation of a joint powers authority to coordinate wildfire preparedness and a quarter-cent sales tax to help fund preparedness efforts.
“Considering Marin’s current state of preparedness, citizens should not assume that first responders will be able to save them from the horrors of a wildfire like those experienced during Butte County’s Camp Fire,” the report states, referring to the fire in November that killed an estimated 85 people, destroying the town of Paradise and ravaging communities around it.
“The deadly threat of fire creates an urgent need for new policies for wildfire preparedness which must be implemented without delay,” says the report, which was released Thursday.
Other key recommendations include: creating a countywide vegetation management plan; hiring at least 30 new vegetation inspectors and at least eight crews focused on fuel reduction; developing a streamlined procedure to enforce vegetation citations; converting key alert systems from opt-in to opt-out; and improving evacuation plans and exit routes.
“The report accurately portrays the fire problem we have in Marin County,” said county fire Chief Jason Weber. “The grand jury highlights the fact that we need to look at this differently under the changing circumstances of climate change. I agree with that sentiment.”
As for creating a joint powers authority, Weber said, “I think the regional approach is the best way to deal with this. As for the specifics, I would not want to jump to that conclusion until we have a chance for the cities, towns and other fire agencies to weigh in.”
Weber also agrees with the grand jury’s conclusion that more revenue is needed to address wildfire preparedness. “As to the exact approach, we need to work with all the partners and get community feedback before the decision is made,” he said.
Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel said, “We also agree that the best solution is a countywide effort that includes all Marin fire and city agencies. We are already working with our cities and fire agencies to develop a potential countywide program to better protect our residents.”
In March, county supervisors authorized the use of about $2.32 million in Measure A funds to pay for a 14-member Marin County wildland fire crew to assist in removing vegetation from county parks and open space over the next two years.
The report highlights four areas in which it says the county is particularly vulnerable to wildfire.
It focuses first on vegetation management, stating that a combination of aggressive fire suppression and environmental policies have created hazardous fuel loads throughout the county.
The grand jury notes that federal and state governments own thousands of acres of ungroomed open space in the county; that the Marin Municipal Water District owns approximately 21,500 acres of wildland and has been clearing only 30 acres per year; and that the Marin County Open Space District owns about 16,000 acres of wildland, 10 percent of which is managed to reduce fire hazard annually.
Some 60,000 acres fall within the wildland urban interface in Marin, and there are an estimated 69,000 living units valued at $59 billion within this area.
The report, however, states, “County and local governments cannot afford to manage vegetation. Property owners must be responsible for doing much of the work.”
That is where the 30 vegetation management inspectors the report recommends hiring would come in. The grand jury envisions the inspectors issuing citations to private property owners who fail to clear a defensible space around their homes and an expedited legal process to make sure the citations are not ignored.
“Evacuation is also a grave concern,” the report states. “Marin’s topography creates great danger for those who live far from the main evacuation routes. Most connecting roads are narrow and overgrown. Some are constricted by traffic calming obstacles such as concrete medians, and bump outs which impede traffic in emergency evacuations.”
The grand jury acknowledges that Marin’s narrow roads can’t all be rebuilt but it says that “existing, wider roads and those that are major evacuation routes should not be narrowed or impeded” with such traffic calming approaches as concrete medians and speed bumps.
The grand jury faults the Transportation Authority of Marin for not helping to plan for mass evacuations or improve the county’s evacuation routes. It recommends that TAM “convene all stakeholders no later than Dec. 31, 2019 to address congestion on escape routes in an evacuation.”
But Dianne Steinhauser, TAM’s executive director, said, “We are really not authorized to plan, fund or implement evacuation needs. We don’t own or operate any transportation facilities. We have no policing authority.”
“We work closely with the Marin County Office of Emergency Services,” Steinhauser added. “If they have any specific needs, we’re open to assisting them.”
The report also concludes that public transit must be included in emergency planning.
“Marin residents who do not have cars cannot simply drive away from the wildfire,” the report observes, “yet planners have not identified how many non-drivers would need rescue.”
Marin County has overlapping alert systems to notify residents in case they need to evacuate due to wildfire. These include the Emergency Alert System, the national warning system used for catastrophic events; Wireless Emergency Alerts, which reach mobile devices by geographically targeting cell towers in a certain area; Nixle, which sends text messages to smartphones by ZIP codes; and Alert Marin, which broadcasts via land lines and cellphones.
The grand jury found that the biggest flaw of Alert Marin, the system deemed the superior choice by public officials, is that it requires cellphone users to opt-in to the system to be contacted. The Marin Office of Emergency Services estimates that only about 10 percent of Marin residents are registered with Alert Marin. Nixle has the same problem.
Weber said new state legislation will be needed to require cellphone users to opt out of Alert Marin, and the county is working with its representatives in the Legislature to make that happen.
Weber said Alert Marin is the system firefighters will use when they need to get an evacuation order out; he said Nixle is more useful for general messages.
Another vulnerability the grand jury identifies is a Marin public largely ignorant of how to prepare for and respond to wildfires.
“Most people do not know how to make their homes fire resistant or create defensible space by cutting back vegetation,” the report states. “Many have failed to collect emergency supplies or plan for evacuations.”
The grand jury says that FireSafe Marin, a local nonprofit focused on wildfire risk prevention and increasing fire-safety awareness, needs to expand its staff and activities from one current part-time employee.
A countywide public forum on wildfire prevention is planned from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Rafael. More information is at bit.ly/2usj1ki.
©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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