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Feather River Bulletin
Quincy, California
June 23, 2010     Feather River Bulletin
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June 23, 2010

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Page 11 Plumas County Grand Jury Report The 2007 Angora fire located in the South Lake Tahoe Basin serves as an example of how ineffective it is for the US Forest Service to exchange responsibili- ties with CAL FIRE. Prior to the incident CAL FIRE maintained no trained personnel or firefighting equipment in the South Shore area similar to the current situation here in Plumas County. Similarly, part of the area devastated by the Angora fire had been designated by CAL FIRE as a SRA and was a part of that same acre exchange agreement. It took the USFS an hour to arrive at the scene of the inci- dent from the North Shore. Because the USFS was required to provide structural fire protection in the Tahoe Keys community, a function outside of its Mission Statement, the Forest Service billed the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department $600,000 for its services. Lost in the Angora fire were 242 residences and 67 commercial structures. As a result of this dev- astation, CAL FIRE now has professionally trained staff and equipment stationed in the South Lake Tahoe Basin. Does Plumas County have to wait for our own Angora Fire to get CAL FIRE protection? A recent memorandum from the Chief of the US Forest Service to Regional Foresters entitled "Wild Land Fire Suppression Policy for Structure Protection," states that US Forest Service units are to "apply strategy and tactics to keep wildland fires from reaching structures, as prudent to do so." However it also states: "The Forest Service shall not: Take direct suppression actions on struc- tures other than those that tactically reduce the threat of fire spread to them. Enter structures or work on roofs of struc- tures for the purpose of direct suppression actions." Two recent house fires in SR:s in Plumas County, outside of local fire protection districts, indicate some of the consequences of these policies. In one case, the only fire fighting unit to arrive was the USFS unit near Quincy. This fire fighting unit watched the house burn to the ground while being prepared to fight the fire should it threaten to spread into the adjacent national forest land. In the other case, the first fire fighting unit to arrive was from the nearest local fire protection district in Graeagle. The unit had trouble finding and reaching the house and actually getting around the structure to fight the fire, because the new home had been approved for occu- pancy without inspection or enforcement of state fire codes concerning roads, signage, turnarounds, clearance, etc. The house burned to the ground, but, because the destroyed residence was not in the fire protection district, the fire protection district billed the homeowners for the costs <ff sending the engines and crews to their home. In this case this cost was more than $20,000. Development Findings and Recommendations: Finding 1: Plumas County government leaders have been approving land development without adequate fire fighting services. This practice amplifies the number of homes and parcels with inadequate or no fire protection services. Recommendation 1. The Board of Supervisors is urged to adopt ordinances requiring stringent mini- mum standards that developers must meet prior to Subdivision Master Plan approval that include: A signed contract for fire protection services Installed fire protection infrastructure and equipment Sufficient emergency water supplies Background: A major concern examined by the 2009-2010 Plumas County Grand Jury is the provision of fire protec- tion and fire prevention services in this county. Specifically investigated were the County Building and Planning Departments. The Grand Jury found that the use and enforcement of fire codes and stan- dards varies depending on whether they are being applied to a structure (homes, outbuildings, and com- mercial buildings), to the area immediately sur- rounding a structure (defensible space, access roads, turnarounds, fuel tanks and emergency water for fighting fires) or to the nearby wildlands (national and private forests as well as grasslands). The Grand Jury found that a large number of parcels (4,631) have been approved for building construction and occupancy located outside of fire protection dis- tricts. Homeowners and business owners are likely unaware that in the event their structures catch fire, there are no fire fighters mandated to respond and fight that fire. The Grand Jury asked how new subdivisions and res- idences get approved in areas where there is no enti- ty responsible for fighting a fire, should a home catch fire. We studied the processes employed by develop- ers, working with county officials and the Board of Supervisors, to gain approvals for fire protection ser- vices. This included provision of emergency water supplies. After a developer acquires land outside of a fire protection district (FPD), one of the require- ments of a plan for further subdivision and construc- tion is that there be fire protection. The Board of Supervisor requests the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCo) to either (a) create a new Community Services District (CSD), or (b) approve annexation to an existing fire protection district (FPD). Either alternative meets the requirement for approval. If a new CSD is formed, the Board of Supervisors by statute becomes the Board of Directors of the new district. They have authorized the new CSD to oper- ate a fire department, but without the specific responsibility to provide fire protection or the requirement for knowledgeable employees and mini- mal equipment to fight a structural fire. Unfortunately, this is sufficient for the approval process of the development. At this point, it is the Board of Supervisors and their key employees (Planning, Building, and Environmental Health Departments) that must decide whether this CSD is capable of providing fire service and sufficient emergency water to fight a fire. If annexation is the approved option, then the plan can go through the entire approval process without any formal agreements or contracts for fire protection or the provision of water service. In the case of annexation as authorized by LAFCo, it is noted that the LAFCo Board is chaired by a mem- ber of the County Board of Supervisors; seated on that Board is a second member of the Board of Supervisors and each of these individuals has a des- ignated alternate that is also a Board of Supervisors member. Evaluation of the plans for compliance of nonstruc- tural state fire codes is the responsibility of the CSD that probably has no qualified employees, or a volun- teer Fire Chief with little time to review plans before the approval deadline. The key players in the process of new development approval are (1) the developer, (2) the Board of Supervisors, (3) the Local Area Formation Commission, and (4) key county staff persons who report to and are evaluated by the Board of Supervisors. The Planning Department is charged with responsi- bility for approving the subdivision of a parcel into lots for single-family residences, multiple housing units, and/or commercial units from what formerly was a single land parcel. The problem involves a developer acquiring land outside of any established fire protection districts authorized to provide fire protection services. To obtain subdivision approval the developer follows one of two scenarios to obtain fire protection and water services. Scenario 1: LAFCo approves annexation of a parcel adjacent to a FPD and/or CSD which has the authorization to operate a fire department. All county fire protection entities are volunteer organizations at the time annexation is approved, which may or may not have facilities, professional employees or resources. This annexation option is a relatively new choice for developers. Scenario 2: LAFCo, following a resolution by the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, requested by the developer, establishes a new CSD with responsibility for providing potable and emergency water supplies, sewage disposal, and authority to operate a fire department. This CSD has no resources, employees, or facilities, but will manage the facilities produced by the developer once the development is completed. Because there are no full time residents within the new develop- ment or the new district, the Board of Directors of this entity is composed of the members of the County Board of Supervisors, a role that is man- dated by law. The County Director of Public Works serves as the General Manager of the District; within the recent past the developer was selected to serve in this role. In both scenarios the Development Plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) cite the FPD and water service provider proposed for annexation or the new CSD as the source of fire protection and water and sewer services. The Plumas County Planning Director is responsi- ble for overall assessment and approval of the EIR and Development Plan and for overseeing evaluations made by state agencies in the case of larger subdivisions. The Planning Director refers the Plan to the Building Department for compliance with Building Codes as might be applicable. The EIR and Development Plan are referred to the Environmental Health Director for assessment of water and sewage plans. To establish whether the Plan complies with non- structural fire codes (roads, turnarounds, emer- gency water supply, etc.), it is sent to the FPD or CSD with a short turnaround deadline and default approval if no response is provided.