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County supervisors discuss fire suppression bill, budget

By Debra Moore

[email protected]

If you blinked, you might have missed it. Okay, it wasn’t that fast, but the Plumas County Board of Supervisors completed the public session of its Sept. 13 meeting in roughly 45 minutes. In less than an hour, the supervisors approved filling several vacant positions, received an update on the county budget situation and discussed proposed legislation addressing the Forest Service response to fires, among other topics.

The proposed legislation by Congressman Tom McClintock accounted for most of the dialogue during the meeting. McClintock authored HR 6903, a bill that called on the Forest Service “to the maximum extent practicable — use all available resources to carry out wildfire suppression with the purpose of extinguishing wildfires detected on National Forest System lands not later than 24 hours after such a wildfire is detected” along with other directives.

Supervisor Jeff Engel asked his fellow supervisor to sign a letter of support for the bill.

Hannah Hepner, representing the Plumas County Fire Safe Council said that she understood the intent of the bill, but “I believe that that goal requires far more nuanced considerations than the proposed requirement to put out every fire. The bill seeks to further enmesh policies that we know have contributed to the current fuels crisis.”

An audience member said that he had been volunteering with the Fire Safe Council for about three years, and commended a “bunch of amazing people” including  the Forest Service, CalFire, Air Quality and more for working together. “This is a complex issue and these are our experts,” he said.

Planning Director Tracey Ferguson researched other counties’ responses to the bill and shared them with the board.  “When the bill was introduced back in March, general support was given but with some cautions,” she said. For example, Nevada County supervisors voted 4-1 to support the bill, but feared it was too vague and limiting. “Serious risks of limiting management tools,” were cited. El Dorado County stated that the board fully supports the need for changes in the way the forest service manages its lands; “however, upon listening to our local fire professionals, we believe a more holistic approach should be taken.” The board wanted to ensure local firefighting professionals have all the tools available to them. That approach seemed to be similar to Hepner’s.

Matt West, who works with the Fire Safe Council and is a captain with Quincy Fire worries that the bill “takes a way a tool from the toolbox” in fighting fire and “subverts the incident command system.”

Supervisor-Elect for District 3, Tom McGowan, said that the National Association of Counties wants language referencing a local component included in the bill.

Board Chairman Kevin Goss said that he understood Hepner’s concerns. “One thing I don’t want to do is unintentionally hamstring our local folks,” Goss said. “If they can rewrite this thing to where it makes a little more sense …”

Supervisor Sherrie Thrall agreed saying that she supports the concept, “but I think the bill needs a lot more work.” Supervisor Dwight Ceresola also had concerns with the bill’s verbiage.

“I would like to have a more nuanced ability to understand each fire in its context,” Hepner reiterated.

Supervisor Greg Hagwood said, “It would seem to me that addressing a fire within 24 hours is not an unreasonable request — and once that is addressed within 24 hours — there is afforded certain decisions once you have someone there looking at it.” He said the intent of the bill “harkens back to a couple of fires, particularly the Bear Fire here (in Plumas County),” that blew up after it had been smoldering for days. It then made a deadly run toward Oroville.

Hepner said that it is extremely reasonable to respond to every fire and then assess it, but the “way I read this is that we respond to every fire with the intent to suppress it.” She said that’s exactly what has led to the situation the forests are in today — surface fuels and tree density have increased due to fire suppression, and that those surface fuels drive fire behavior. She said the only way to treat them is through the use of fire.

“I have been fighting fire in this county before you were born,” Engel said. “Back in those days there was logging, forest management – this is 40 to 50 years of no logging.” He said he never went on a fire that was more than a couple acres. “This is all mismanagement.”

Ceresola said that he has seen improvements this year with how agencies are addressing fire, but also called out the public for not doing their part — such as clearing trees away from their homes. “This is a positive start,” he said of the bill.

Hagwood said that the state of today’s forests is due in large part to the groups that prevent projects, such as thinning, from occurring on the forests. He said they bear responsibility.

The board did not sign the letter of support for the bill as it was written and encouraged Tracey Ferguson and Hannah Hepner to rewrite the letter.


The county budget

Board Chairman Kevin Goss said today’s discussion was a continuation of the public hearing held Sept. 6 regarding budget.

“We are digging into it and want to prevent a more streamlined document,” Goss said. “Our team has been running into a number of glitches in our system.” The new plan is to present more information on Sept. 20 and then hold a special meeting Sept. 27.


Positions to be filled

The board voted unanimously to fill the following allocated positions:

  • Assessor’s Office – 1 full-time auditor/appraiser
  • Probation Department – 1 full-time deputy probation officer
  • Public Works – 1 full-time road maintenance worker in La Porte area

The board also unanimously approved appointing Brandon Herbert as the Nervino Airport Manager in Beckwourth.

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