Destined to Burn: Living under the threat of wildfire in California
Here a quarter could still buy a parking space in historic downtown, and even the council members in the town of Nevada City seemed to know how good they had it.
“I don’t go anywhere in the world that has parking that cheap,” Reinette Senum, Nevada City’s vice mayor told her colleagues at a May city council meeting of the Sierra foothills hamlet’s 25-cent-an-hour meter rates.
The council members and staff gathered around the table that day at Nevada City City Hall were considering what city councils across the country consider every day – how to raise revenue. Adding parking meters and increasing the hourly parking rate from 25 cents to $1 would generate nearly $560,000 a year for the city, city staffers said.
After all, rate backers reasoned, next-door neighbor Grass Valley’s parking rates are $1. Just up the road in Truckee, it costs $1.50 to park.
But something more pressing was behind the proposed parking hikes in this Gold Country town of 3,000 tucked into the Tahoe National Forest: the ever-present fire danger in one of California’s most fire-prone communities.
Cal Fire designates nearly all of Nevada City a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” the agency’s term for communities at extreme risk for wildfire.
The town has plenty of company. More than 350,000 Californians live in places covered almost entirely by the Cal Fire designation, a McClatchy analysis of fire-vulnerable California communities earlier this year revealed.
“This is a safety issue for this town. ... I highly hope that everyone on the council sees this as a good thing for the town,” Nevada City councilwoman Erin Minett told members at a June council meeting.
Council members in June approved the increases earmarking 20 percent of the new annual revenue – about $100,000 a year – to pay for fire mitigation to remove fire-feeding brush and undergrowth as well as an emergency siren atop the roof of city hall to sound the alarm in an emergency.
Minett at the June 12 meeting called on the city to install the alarm by the end of the summer.
Nevada City’s parking meter conversation arose as the county’s 2018-2019 grand jury asked plainly whether Nevada County was ready for the new reality of a year-round fire threat: “Facing Year-Long Fire Seasons. Are We Prepared?”
The county’s mitigation plan offers its own synopsis: “Nevada City’s single largest risk for human life and financial loss is fire,” it reads.
The threat of catastrophic fire in Nevada County and in Northern California is all too real.
Sixty structures were destroyed between October 2017’s Lobo and McCourtney fires in Nevada County, recent reminders of the risks foothill residents face. And not far down the road, the haunting scars of the Camp Fire in Butte County that leveled Paradise, killing 85 people in the state’s worst fire.
“Some fire experts believe that Nevada County is just as vulnerable as Butte County for such a disaster. Others say it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next big fire will occur,” the grand jury’s report reads in part. “This sense of inevitability has brought fire prevention to the foreground, where it must remain.”
In Nevada City, the town is poised to pay for that prevention a quarter at a time.
“These meters can actually help us,” Minett said at the June meeting. “I hope you all feel really good that when you’re putting money in there that you’re helping us fight fires.”