Escape route?

As construction begins on FH171, doubts remain

WAY OUT? <br>This map shows the route FH171 will follow (with north being to the right). The shaded portion is Phase 1 of the construction.

This map shows the route FH171 will follow (with north being to the right). The shaded portion is Phase 1 of the construction.

Photo courtesy of butte county association of governments

For years, the 20,000 residents of Magalia have lived in fear of being caught in a terrible forest fire. They have only one way out: down the Skyway and across the narrow, two-lane Magalia Reservoir dam, which residents envision as the mother of all bottlenecks.

Last summer’s fires only increased their fears. They are well aware of what happened when so many drivers tried to exit via Pentz Road that gridlock set in. Some people spent hours traveling just a few miles. Those caught on the road considered themselves lucky that the fires didn’t catch up with them.

The effort to build a well-paved escape route out of Paradise and Magalia has been as long and twisty as the dirt road it will replace, but it’s finally about to show tangible results.

Construction on the first phase of Forest Highway 171, also known as the Upper Skyway, will break ground next month. By all rights it should mark the beginning of the end of the frustration and fear Upper Ridge residents have felt about the lack of an exit route during possible fire emergencies.

But will it? Many experts say that, by itself, it’s not enough—not even close to being enough—to make Paradise Ridge residents safe in case of a conflagration.

Construction of FH171 comes 15 years after a feasibility study concluded a different route was most feasible, one that connected State Route 191 (Clark Road) with State Route 32 at Forest Ranch. For lack of state funding, that 1994 plan sits on a shelf.

By 1999 a new plan had taken shape, the paving of FH171, which suddenly became the most feasible route when it garnered a hard-earned federal earmark, thanks largely to the efforts of Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico).

Butte County District 5 Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, who inherited the FH171 project when he was first elected in 2001, presented an update on the construction at a recent meeting in Magalia of the Upper Ridge Coordinating Council.

He began by saying that, while the route is not a cure-all, it was selected not only because federal highway money was available, but also because the route is well-known. He said the professionals chose this route.

Several Ridge residents in attendance had been advocating for evacuation routes for decades. Tom Kelly, for example, asked Yamaguchi to agendize a public discussion with the Board of Supervisors, but Yamaguchi did not offer to do that. And Thea Max said, “Mr. Yamaguchi, you are our one representative. If you do not help us, who will?”

Geri Benedict said that many would probably not live to see the day when more routes would be paved because of the long approval process for road projects.

Yamaguchi announced that the ribbon-cutting for Phase 1, a 3.9-mile section from Inskip to Humbug Summit, would be held in Inskip on Sept. 1 at 10 a.m. The construction season will be short, however.

It will take three years to pave the entire 9.6-mile road from Inskip to Humboldt Road in Butte Meadows. Retaining walls will be constructed first, he said.

One problem: “We don’t have all the money,” Yamaguchi said.

Butte County Association of Governments planner Ivan Garcia said about $5 million will be needed to complete the project, which will cost between $15 million and $20 million.

Yamaguchi said he hopes the Federal Surface Transportation Bill and the Federal Highway Administration will be sources of more funds to complete the construction. But Andy Newsum, BCAG’s project director for FH171, said he’s not counting on any money from the FSTB, but that the money could come from congressional appropriation and/or the Public Lands Highway Program.

Around 50,000 people live on the Paradise Ridge. Evacuating all or many of them in a fire emergency presents a daunting challenge. Paving FH171 will barely begin to solve the problem.

In its 2008-09 report, the Butte County Grand Jury found that, “Even if upgraded as planned, this route [FH171] will not be classified as an evacuation route. Additional evacuation routes are necessary.”

BCAG and county staff confirmed that FH171, when paved, will nevertheless be insufficient as a major evacuation route.

The grand jury also recommended that a fire district be formed and that the county’s General Plan 2030 adequately address the fire safety of the Ridge, an area prone to disastrous wildfires.

So far, only Herger has shown the political will to improve the situation. And, as he noted in a 1994 letter, “it does not appear that BCAG has any immediate plans to make an alternative route in and out of the ridge a priority item.” BCAG is the agency charged with managing state and federal transportation funds and meeting the county’s needs for new roads.

Indeed, BCAG, Caltrans, and Butte County have so far placed their hopes in the federal government’s being the major financier to solve the local planning blunder of allowing a large and sprawling urbanized area lacking fire-suppression mechanisms, including fire hydrants in some areas, to be built on a dead-end ridge surrounded by forests.

No plans for connecting routes other than FH171 are on the BCAG Regional Transportation Plan 2035; the political will to find other routes has not yet included the BCAG Board of Directors.

Wade Killingsworth, coordinator for the Upper Ridge Fire Safe Council, pointed out that fuel loading—that is, accumulation of brush and other combustibles—in and around the Ridge has been allowed to occur for more than a few decades.

To help address the fuel loading and other fire-safety measures, Paradise Town Manager Chuck Rough is facilitating the formation of a fire district proposal. The first draft was out in February, and the next draft is expected to be out for public review at the Ridge Area Ad Hoc Committee meeting later this month. A portion of the funds could be allocated to evacuation-route improvements, should voters decide to include roads in the fire district’s budget.

BCAG continues to seek the remaining funding—the largest obstacle to getting routes built—for the FH171 project. Said Yamaguchi, “We’ll keep going until it’s done.”