Politicians feel the heat

Unable to ask questions at a town meeting, Ridge residents sign a petition instead

SMOLDERING FIRE<br>The lack of a question-and-answer period enabled Rep. Wally Herger (left) and Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi to avoid hearing the frustration of many members of a large audience during a town meeting at a Paradise church.

The lack of a question-and-answer period enabled Rep. Wally Herger (left) and Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi to avoid hearing the frustration of many members of a large audience during a town meeting at a Paradise church.

Photo By Karen O'Neill

One of the Upper Ridge petition organizers, Karen O’Neill, is the wife of Jaime O’Neill, who attended the meeting as a journalist. Karen regularly contributes photos for Jaime’s stories.

When some 400 Ridge residents packed Paradise Alliance Church on Clark Road last Saturday to hear updates on the fires that have imperiled that mountain community since June 11, many among them were frustrated by the failure of local politicians to get an additional escape route off the hill.

Just two weeks earlier, when the Humboldt Fire had put lower Paradise under siege, both the Skyway and Neal Road were closed, and Clark Road soon followed, leaving only Pentz Road open—and that limited evacuation route had, at times, been clogged by stalled vehicles carrying people frightened that the fire would reach them before they got to safety.

By last Saturday (June 28), the danger had been amplified by the thousands of lightning strikes that hit the foothills and the mountains on June 21, sparking more than 30 fires in Butte County alone. Since then, much of the population had been on tenterhooks, waiting to learn whether they would have to flee and, if flight became necessary, whether there would be a way out.

So a group of concerned residents attended Saturday’s meeting to pass around a petition titled “An Urgent Request for Ridge Evacuation Routes.” The situation is especially acute in the Magalia area, where the only route out for some 18,000 residents is the Skyway—a two-lane road that bottlenecks at the Magalia reservoir to the south and has no paved highway connector to the north.

“It’s a shame nothing’s been done,” said one of the petitioners. “Wally Herger has represented this area for 22 years, and the need for this road out has been known all that time, and still we don’t have anything.”

Perhaps because that kind of sentiment was simmering just beneath the surface, the meeting did not include a question-and-answer session that might have brought heat to the congressman and to county Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, who joined the panel of fire officials addressing the standing-room-only assembly.

The smell of smoke hung heavy in the room as the gathering applauded with genuine gratitude as each of the assembled fire captains was introduced. In the words of Incident Commander Rob Lewin, who tried to offer both information and reassurance, “The fires have been lazy, and we’re trying to kill this giant before it wakes up.”

Ironically, the absence of wind that had kept that giant slumbering had also kept the skies too clouded by smoke to allow more flyovers by the C-130 airtankers that drop the fire retardant used to kill such giants.

“The situation we’re facing is unprecedented,” Lewin said. “I don’t have near enough resources for these conditions. In a bad year, if we have four fires going at the same time, that’s pretty crazy, so you can imagine how pressed we are now, when we’ve had anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 fires.”

Just keeping track of the names of those fires was a daunting task. The Smoky Fire, the Onion Fire, the Cub Fire, the West Fire, the Breakneck Fire, the Empire Fire, the Sawmill Fire, the Rim Fire, the Bear Fire, the Ophir Fire and dozens upon dozens more—the nouns were as colorful as the blazes were scary to the residents they threatened.

As bad as the situation was and had been, the fear was that it could get worse, though by the time this report was filed, the red-flag warning regarding additional lightning storms and an increase in wind had been rescinded.

“Structure protection is a tough job,” Lewin said. “It involves lots of waiting followed by lots of panic, but we’ve written the evacuation plans and the structure protection plans. I’m doing my best to control rumors, but people are listening in on scanners, and they misinterpret what they hear, then spread that misinformation in ways that don’t do anyone any good.”

The work of the 1,600 firefighters assembled in the area received a standing ovation from the audience and later, when one of the speakers thanked God for the cooperation from the weather, God, too, got a round of applause.

Yamaguchi, the newly re-elected county supervisor for Paradise and its environs, told the crowd he wanted “to strike while the iron was hot” to encourage everyone to get involved with the Butte County Fire Safe Council. He pledged his continuing support for an additional escape route off the Upper Ridge, and, uncharacteristically for a politician, praised earmarks to recent legislation that have allocated some $12 million for construction of that road. He also said that part of the reason for the delay was that the proposed evacuation route was on federal land.

Herger, who followed Yamaguchi to the mic, was quick to cop credit for that $12 million, but he blamed the delay in getting a road built on the fact that the evacuation route was, in part, on county property.

“This is the most challenging time we’ve ever seen,” Herger added, “but the issue is not new. It tends to be a fire-prone area up here.”

Herger added: “We are moving forward, and an evacuation route will be my highest priority.”

There were many in the gathering who thought Herger was himself blowing smoke and that his efforts to provide an escape route for his constituents had been less than energetic. Attempting to goose their local congressman into action, some 200 of those assembled signed the petition that circulated during the meeting.

Herger brought the meeting to a close by saying: “It is my honor to represent you and fight for your interests in Washington.” Yamaguchi and Herger, buttonholed by a man gathering signatures for the petition, both added their signatures to the list before leaving.