Emergency access routes for Mountain Area citizens was the topic of discussion at a special town hall meeting held Oct. 29 at the Oakhurst Community Center.
Before a standing-room only crowd of about 200, Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler explained, "There should be no dead-end roads anywhere because of the danger it poses and these mountains are full of dead-end roads, where residents can only access their homes one way."
Prior to 1991, there was no law stating there must be a second road access. Because many Mountain Area communities existed prior to this provision, they were grandfathered in and were not required to have emergency access roads.
While a total of 35 areas have been identified as "communities-at-risk," the five specific focused on at this time were: John West Road/Indian Springs Road, Cascadel Woods, Cedar Valley, Trabuco/Wells Road, and Echo Valley Road (423) and Bear Lane (422). Cedar Valley is the biggest challenge because there's no easy way to create a second access road, while Roads 423 and 422 is the simplest project.
These areas were selected as priorities due to recent fires in or near those spots, as well as their priority ranking in the Madera County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan, adopted in 2008, helps county officials and citizens develop an understanding of the risk of potential losses of life, property, and natural resources associated with a damaging wildfire.
In preparation for this meeting, the Madera County Road Department, along with Cal Fire and the Madera County Fire Department conducted site visits to these specified areas to determine the most viable and cost-effective options.
Based on these findings, Johannes Hoevertsz, Madera County road commissioner presented the five areas currently being addressed, the changes necessary to create second access roads using existing roads, along with the estimated cost of these upgrades.
Hoevertsz believes that cleaning-up existing roads, to make them passable in the event of an emergency, is cheaper than creating new roads. The cost estimates for cleaning-up the roads are as follows:
- Cascadel Woods Road/Road 8S27: $520,000
- John West Road/Indian Springs Road: $620,000
- Road 422 and Road 423 (Sierra Lakes Drive): $120,000
- Trabuco Mt. Road/Wells Road: $220,000
- Cedar Valley: Further research/input needed
Naturally, residents were curious as to how these projects would be funded.
"There are two kinds of roads, private and public," Hoevertsz explained. "For public roads, public funding or Measure T revenue can be used for second road access projects. For those living along private roads, residents would go into a public/private partnership with Madera County, in which residents would collect the revenue needed and the county would do the work at a reduced cost.
"For those living within a maintenance district," Hoevertsz added, "the district comes up with half the cost and the county comes up with the other half. Maintenance district fees are added to property tax bills."
Once the presentation was completed, audience members took the opportunity to ask questions or address concerns.
John Taylor, a former member of the Sierra Hot Shots for seven years, stood and emphatically said, "I live just outside Cascadel, and the egress and ingress cross my property. Cascadel Drive South leads into a boxed canyon. If there is a fire, why would anyone want to go into a boxed canyon? So, why use a designated evacuation route just to get yourself killed?"
Hoevertsz assured Taylor that once that road is made passable and maintained, two-wheel drives could make it out safely.
Taylor disagreed. "There are grades on that road that are hard to walk. Even when I ride my horses, I have to stop and rest them. There's just no way that this is a usable road, even if we spend a-half million dollars ... just no way, especially if a family is in a packed Subaru trying to use that road as an escape route. They'll get stuck, which will make others behind them stuck ... it's nothing more than a death trap."
Still, Taylor said he will give the county what it wants, access through his property for this escape access, but "I'm going in the opposite direction," he stated.
Taylor later provided the Sierra Star with a letter from the Madera County Fire Department to the Cascadel Woods Property Owner's Association dated Nov. 4, 1999, referencing an escape route at the end of Cascadel Drive South.
What follows is an excerpt from this letter written by Candace Gregory, Chief of Madera County Fire Department:
"After careful review of the Cascadel Woods subdivision, it was determined that in a fire situation the only true way to provide safety to the residents, would be through shelter-in-place ... the secondary road that had been identified would not be safe under any condition, due to its location and condition. The fire service has identified that canyons, or chutes, are major contributing factors in wildland firefighting fatalities. I would not want to see one of your residents add to these statistics, and would recommend that you widely advertise NOT to use the road at the end of Cascadel Drive South as an escape route."
Hoevertsz was well aware of the contents of this letter. "At some point, the Fire Department changed their stance," he said. "Shelter-in-place is like saying burn-in-place. The plan now is to pack your things, prepare your home and get out."
"Cascadel Road South was used for logging," Hoevertsz continued. "Vehicles and trucks loaded with wood could run that road with no problem. While it may not be the ideal road, residents can get out in case of an emergency, especially if it's maintained. If I lived in Cascadel, I would take that route out myself."
Currently, 4-wheel drives are needed to travel along Cascadel Road South, but Hoevertsz believes that once the project is completed, with possible paving over the steeper grades, the road would then be passable for all vehicles, especially with yearly grading due to the low traffic-volume, and locked gates once fire season ends.
"When it comes to an evacuation during a catastrophic event," Hoevertsz said, "I believe a route must be available to the residents of an at-risk community. A viable access route can either allow residents to get out of the area or allow fire crews in to combat the incident. We need to have a systematic emergency management plan, including access routes that work together so that lives can be preserved when the time comes."
Don Stein, Cal Fire/Madera County Fire Division chief, brought up the point that, although the 2013 fire season has come and gone, it takes the fire department between 10 to 15 minutes to arrive once the 911 call goes out, so the best chance residents have to save their homes is the 100-feet of defensible space around each structure.
Many believe the John West fire of Aug. 11 was a wake-up call for Mountain Area residents. The 20-acre fire threatened homes before firefighters responded on the ground and through the air to suppress the flames. At least one homeowner on John West Road voiced concern over the fact there is not an alternate escape route for residents of the area, which could be life-threatening.
Stein expressed his pride at the hard work of the firefighters during a long fire season. "We got dirty, sweaty and hungry on those fires, but most of all we got fortunate because we were able to hit the fire hard in the initial attack phase, especially the John West fire, which was in such a populated area."
These town hall meetings are a forum to meet with affected residents, offer possible solutions, and together decide the best way to move forward.
"I believe Supervisor Wheeler is doing an excellent thing in providing options to Mountain Area residents to save lives," Hoevertsz said.
"If there is a way to fix these problems," Wheeler commented, "now is the time for the County and communities to work together to make it happen. We are willing to work with any community that is interested. Although this process will not be easy or cheap, the county will do all that it can to help affected communities acquire better emergency access."
Wheeler asked that communities interested in pursuing alternative access routes should first form a local committee. That committee would act as the liaison to the county in any and all future discussions and meetings.
Property owners or residents on dead-end roads, who are interested in forming a group to discuss obtaining a secondary access point, can contact Supervisor Wheeler's office at (559) 662-6050 or -county.com">tom.wheeler@mader -county.com
To view the Town Hall presentation and the Madera County Wildfire Protection Plan, madera-county.com/index.php/district-5-home.