City considers open flame burn ban; renews Covid emergency proclamation

By Lauren Westmoreland

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A ban on open flames, the Dixie Fire threat and Covid-19 were among the topics discussed during the Portola City Council meeting Sept. 8.

Open flame burn ban

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Concerned community members have reached out to the city regarding open flames during the extreme fire risk in the area.

“There are options, such as an emergency rule for the duration of Dixie Fire, or we can amend our ordinance if that is what is wanted by council,” City Manager Lauren Knox explained.

Knox noted that the Tahoe area had been addressing the issue in a variety of ways. “Generally, gas firepits are allowed, and there is a ban on wood and charcoal burning during certain months. In North Tahoe, all form of open flame is prohibited during red flag conditions. Even things like propane barbecues.”

Knox invited direction from council.

Mayor Bill Powers asked the council’s permission to meet the fuels specialist from the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Beckwourth Fire Department fire chief.

“Almost any open flame can be very dangerous in these conditions,” Powers said. “You have all of these layers of pine needles that burn up in an instant, and that’s where we are in September, with a copious number of needles dropping and wind.”

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Councilwoman Pat Morton stated that she wouldn’t be against removing the potential for open flame in the city “as we get through the intense fire season.”

Councilman Tom Cooley noted that the ad-hoc fire committee had discussed this, and they came away with the impression that the best course of immediate action would be to proclaim an emergency for a specified time, giving everyone a chance to study an changes that might be made to the city ordinance through the winter. “You have the support of the committee,” he said.

Moving forward, Powers will have his meetings and will bring the information back to the council as soon as possible.

Portola resident Ashlee Sims asked if the city would allow the fire department to levy fines or cite people for having fires in the event a ban takes place. Knox acknowledged that enforcement would indeed be a part of that discussion

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Dixie Fire update

Knox reported the size of the fire as of that morning, stating that while no one is out of the woods yet, the situation is “looking much better for our area, at least. Evacuation warnings for the City of Portola have been lifted.” Knox added that the fire has been pushed into the Beckwourth Complex and Walker Fire scars through the past week.

The city has been on daily calls with the Plumas County Emergency Operations Center and Forest Service. “There is a long road to recovery ahead for our county, and quite a bit of loss,” Knox acknowledged. “We are prepared to help in any way that we can.”

Covid-19

Knox noted that Covid-19 cases are increasing pretty significantly in the area. “A key piece for tonight is the opportunity for the council to take another look at how we want to move forward in respect to the Covid-19 Declaration of Emergency,” she said. The pandemic is a matter of physical health, but also one of financial consequence for the city.

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For example, utility billing in the city has been unable to assess late fees as of yet, due to the ongoing pandemic. “Hopefully we will be able to start to do outreach soon for those with heavily overdue accounts,” Knox said.

She also explained that Plumas County Public Health is still looking into specifics on releasing information to the community about the percentages of people vaccinated or unvaccinated being treated for Covid-19 without compromising patient privacy.

Council agreed to keep the proclamation intact ‘as is’ and approved the emergency proclamation for another 60 days by unanimous roll call vote.

Portola resident Ashlee Sims spoke again, raising concerns regarding the response time for patients requesting emergency services in the city.

Sims stated that she was “concerned” over the response time of a recent call that went out over the scanner, alleging that a local had waited “nearly 20 minutes for assistance” and had died by the time assistance arrived.

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Mayor Powers responded, “Our response times are rarely that long; it would be very unusual to have a response time that long. We need more details.”

Sims said she had spoken with deceased’s family and she would bring it up at the council’s next meeting.

Cooley said he was made aware of an allegation of that nature and had been reassured that the time delay was inaccurate.  “There are also protocols in place for response for all responders during this covid crisis,” Cooley stated.” It is absolutely essential that these protocols are followed; we cannot afford to be without these first responders.”

Cooley added that the ambulance company is also responsible for response times on medical calls. He asked if Sims had read the Covid-19 protocols in great detail for first responders, and Sims said she would appreciate that information being provided to her.

Public comment

The meeting had opened with public comment from Ashlee Sims, who voiced concerns regarding the process of public employee performance evaluations, specifically that of City Manager Lauren Knox.

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Sims also noted that she had recently spoken with the Schomac group on the topic of the Woodbridge housing project in Portola, claiming that Schomac representatives stated to her that they “cannot move forward on building housing due to fees imposed upon them by the city.” Mayor Bill Powers asked Sims to please submit her comment in written form for further clarification.

Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship Trails Director Mandy Beatty thanked the city council for helping fund the Beckwourth Peak project over the summer.

“We had our first ever Portola-based, high school trail crew,” Beatty said. “We hired six crew members for youth crew over the summer from Portola; they worked with us and our pro crews on 4.3 miles of new trail on Beckwourth Peak trail. We are really excited about the progress we’ve made, and really grateful for the support from the City of Portola.”

Committee Reports

Councilmember Phil Oels reported that he had attended the recent Firewise meeting at the Portola Library, stating that it was the biggest attendance he’d seen thus far, and a “really good meeting” overall. Oels also attended a Disc Golf Ad-Hoc committee meeting for the Portola disc golf course.

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Councilmember Tom Cooley had participated as a panelist on a CALafCo webinar series and also attended the Portola Firewise outreach meeting. “I hope all that were present carry through with their desire to get all of these properties around town Firewise,” Cooley said.

Cooley had also participated in fuel reduction on the disc golf course and course preparation, in addition to an Ad-Hoc Fire Department committee meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Pat Morton reported that she had attended three different disc golf ad-hoc meetings, with plans for a soft opening of the course on Oct. 23. Morton also attended the Fire Department Ad-Hoc meeting.

Mayor Bill Powers attended the Firewise meeting as well and reported that he has spent “much time in last few days chasing and booking bands, apologizing to bands, cancelling concerts, rebooking- I was really very disappointed that I couldn’t in good conscience bring bands here.”  Powers went on, “Everything was tenuous, going in one direction and then the other.”

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Powers also reported on the activity undertaken by a local volunteer who set up an evacuation area at the ballfields. “The area around the city ballfields for anyone who needs to evacuate from the fire, or whatever comes next, is now established for that purpose.” Evacuees staying in the city have been notified and will be moving to the above-mentioned area before the end of the week.

Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) Air Pollution Control Specialist Melissa Klundby spoke briefly, reminding the community that NSAQMD has plenty of money to continue to change out old wood stoves in the area for EPA certified stoves. In regard to air quality, curtailment months will be from November to February this year. “There are also lots of free chimney sweeps for EPA certified stove owners,” she said. If you have an EPA certified stove you did not receive from our program, there is a registration process so you can burn on curtailment days, please give us a call anytime at 832-0102.”

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City Manager report

City Manager Lauren Knox reported that since the last meeting, she had been giving much attention to the Dixie Fire and matters related to it.

“For disc golf, Tim Rhode has been doing a substantial amount of donation collection and sponsorship that has been pretty amazing,” she said. “He would like to make some additional upgrades to the course, and due to the amount of change proposed, I feel that we should discuss it at a meeting with council in the near future.”

Knox also noted her attendance at a variety of meetings, including an integrated meeting with Plumas County, a SKOR board meeting, a meeting with Grizzly Lake Community Services District (CSD), and a Firewise meeting.

The City Council welcomes all to regular meetings held the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. via Zoom. For more information, call City Hall at 832-6801.

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