Putting a price on safety
Local rural communities will weigh in on paying for added fire protection
During the Humboldt fire, John and Tasha Haigh could see the flames coming, both from Neal Road and up Hamlin Canyon, toward their home south of Paradise town limits. On their scanner, they could hear chatter between firefighting pilots, command centers, police and ground fire personnel.
The Haighs had maintained defensible space around their 10-year-old home, which was “fire safe” according to the standards of the housing code and their insurance carrier. In fact, until the winds shifted and the areas burning converged and spread toward their Calernbar Way residence, it seemed they might have the battle won. Within just a few hours, though, the fire surged to within 300 to 400 yards, forcing the couple to evacuate.
Despite taking precautions in anticipation of this very scenario, the Haighs returned to find only ashes where their home stood, and embers burning around their still-standing detached garage.
“We lost the home and all its contents. We got out with a few changes of clothes and some pictures,” John said. “We can never replace everything. It’s overwhelming. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t encounter a need for an item we lost.”
They weren’t the only ones. The Humboldt Fire consumed 23,344 acres, destroying or damaging 94 dwellings, along with 104 vehicles and 167 outbuildings. Additionally, 14 firefighters were injured. CalFire estimates the cost of the blaze at $20.5 million.
No event in recent local history compares to the fires of the summer of 2008, fires that tested confidence in the ability of local emergency services to protect the public. The question now facing the region is whether the protection currently in place is adequate.
Last fall, just months after the disaster, Paradise Town Manager Chuck Rough began discussing the formation of a regional fire district designed to enhance existing programs and to provide additional protection. The move would require a property tax approved by voters.
The Town and County Ridge Area Ad Hoc Committee continued the discussion last winter, going over several aspects including the proposed boundaries extending from Butte Creek Canyon through Magalia and Stirling City down through Paradise and into Butte Valley (see map). After additional consultations with fire agencies, Fire Safe Council leaders, and others, Rough presented the revised version to the committee last month. (Full details of the report can be seen at www.townofparadise.com under Agendas.)
Currently, three plans to form a Mello-Roos district are on the table. The least expensive option ($55 per parcel annually) would provide fire-prevention and emergency-preparedness improvements such as public information and education programs to the town of Paradise, the Upper Ridge, the south-Paradise unincorporated area, and Butte Creek Canyon. The second option (at a cost of $74 a year) would provide the same improvements to these areas plus additional fire protection and suppression, namely three seasonal (six months a year) firefighters for Butte County and three full-time firefighters for the town of Paradise.
The final option would to some degree benefit areas outside of town; however, only property owners within Paradise town limits would pay an annual fee of $75.12 per parcel. Other regions could form their own districts in the same manner and determine the way to spend the collected money. Rough came up with this alternative because other areas may have different priorities for protection and prevention activities, or no interest at all in forming a district.
During a recent interview, Shari McCracken, Butte County deputy administrative officer, recalled the complexities of dealing with multiple simultaneous fires.
“There was incident on top of incident,” she said. “The Humboldt Fire rolled immediately onto the new incident, the Butte Lightning Siege.”
The fires required a complicated response from many agencies, including CalFire, which serves as the leading responder for incidents of this magnitude, as well as Butte County, the California Highway Patrol, Butte County Sheriff’s Office, and the town of Paradise and its police and fire departments. Moreover, the size of the fires prompted emergency personnel from across the country.
According to CalFire’s summary of the Humboldt Fire alone, the blaze had the potential to affect thousands of homes and commercial properties, the entire communities of Paradise, Magalia and Forest Ranch, as well as Butte College. Homes were also lost in Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley.
Rough oversaw a review of the town’s response to the fires of 2008. The town’s September 2009 newsletter sums up subsequent changes, including improvements in communications, planning and intelligence gathering.
Any additional fire protections would require more money, which is where the Mello-Roos plan comes into play.
Paradise Town Council members will consider the proposal at their regular meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 10). Rough said it will be “a regular agenda item with the council asked to identify at this point in time which of the alternatives they would prefer.”
McCracken said that the Butte County Board of Supervisors likewise will consider the proposed alternatives, but not until January or February. However, this proposal grew from the ashes of the 2008 fires in a district that has three times elected a supervisor, Kim Yamaguchi, who has a history of voting down increases in taxes.
The question remains as to whether a majority of voters will support such a parcel tax. Rough said a vote could be held on formation of a fire district as early as the November 2010 election.
Meanwhile, residents like the Haighs who lost their homes will continue to rebuild.
John estimated it will take two to three more years to completely recover from the catastrophe. The couple recently moved into their new home, after spending 11 months living on site in their fifth-wheel trailer while rebuilding.
Last week, John took a vacation from his Paradise business to work on the landscaping. On Sunday, he had just filled a backhoe with diesel, and was preparing the ground for planting trees, shrubbery and other landscaping.
“It will take 10 years for the trees to be of any size at all,” he said, his gaze surveying the property.