Jury flags Marin wildfire danger, floats new tax for oversight

05/16/2019

The hills are green, but some Marin residents are already seeing golden brown—and the imminent threat of wildfire. 

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury last month released a damning report on wildfire preparedness, chiefly recommending a new, countywide quarter-cent sales tax to strengthen efforts. The 20-member jury proposed a new joint-powers agency to manage the new funds, taking on the challenge of “remedying troubling gaps in preparedness and demonstrating political will to improve public safety.” 

“The conditions that made wildfire a distant and unlikely risk have now changed. Through a combination of new weather patterns, aggressive suppression of natural wildfires, and pro-vegetation environmental policy, Marin has become extremely vulnerable to devastation from wildfires,” the report states. “We are living in a powder keg.”

The report was quickly endorsed by Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, who supports the idea of the joint-powers agency. “I agree with the grand jury on almost everything: they have accurately highlighted the wildfire threat in the county,” he said. “The public is really demanding that we take bold action and that is going to take some resources, resources that we don’t have now.” 

As envisioned by the jury, the agency would include at least 25 members drawn from each of the county’s cities and fire districts. The agency would be tasked with several responsibilities: creating a new countywide vegetation-management program staffed by 30-plus full-time inspectors; developing plans for mass movement of populations along designated evacuation routes; developing countywide best-practice policies for alert notification systems; hiring fuel-reduction crews whose sole responsibility would be to reduce fuel loads in high-risk areas; and conducting public outreach to encourage fuel reduction. 

With a single enabling statute and the agreement of Marin’s 12 jurisdictions, supervisors could put the sales-tax increase on the ballot.  

Though the sales tax is set at different rates across local jurisdictions, each jurisdiction could adopt an additional quarter-cent and still comply with the state mandated maximum of 9.25 percent. Larkspur, Fairfax, San Rafael, Corte Madera—all already charging a 9 percent tax—would max out, while the unincorporated region of the county and many of the other cities are only at 8.25 percent. 

Although this wouldn’t give the four jurisdictions much wiggle room to expand the sales tax for other needs in the future, “they would be likely to get a state exemption should the need arise in the future,” the jury wrote.

The risk of wildfire in Marin 

“Considering Marin’s current state of preparedness, citizens should not assume that first responders will be able to save them from the horrors of a wildfire like experienced during Butte County’s Camp Fire,” warns the report, called “Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach.” 

The jury made some key contrasts between fire preparedness in Marin and Paradise, which its members visited in January. 

Paradise has three well-paved roads out of town; by contrast, Marin has many communities located in canyons with only one exit, often on narrow, poorly maintained roads. The evacuation routes that run east and west particularly have choke points where they narrow to one lane in each direction.  

At the time of the Camp Fire, most of Paradise’s fire and police officers lived in town and were able to respond quickly. Yet only 20 to 30 percent of Marin’s first responders live in the county, according to a 2011 grand jury report. The jury estimates that number is even lower now. 

Paradise had comprehensive evacuation plans that had been tested in previous fires, and the town had conducted practice evacuation drills. Even so, it took five hours to evacuate. By contrast, Marin has no comprehensive evacuation plans that have been shared with the public, and only a few neighborhoods have held evacuation drills.

Neither the Highway 101 corridor, where most of Marin’s population is clustered, nor the main roads in West Marin are designed to accommodate mass evacuations, the report notes. 

Although Paradise had better evacuation routes, like Marin, it had failed to adequately clear vegetation on those routes and in the surrounding areas. Overgrown vegetation on Marin’s public and private lands poses enormous risks. 

Out of the 21,500 acres managed by the Marin Municipal Water District, only 30 acres are cleared per year. Marin County Open Space District focuses on reducing fuel on just 10 percent of its 16,000 acres. According to the Marin County Assessor’s Office, there are approximately 4,400 vacant lots—which are usually overgrown. The jury cited thousands more ungroomed acres under the management of the federal government and the State of California. 

“Photographs of Marin County in the first half of the 20th Century reveal a landscape of open grassland with a smattering of trees and bushes,” the report states. “Marin now consists of homes, businesses and shopping centers surrounded by densely overgrown vegetation.”  

The report put local land managers at fault. In Marin, approximately 60,000 acres fall within the “wildland urban interface,” areas where there is both open space and wildland vegetation intermixed with residences. The Marin County Fire Department estimates there are upwards of 69,000 housing units valued at $59 billion within that area.

The jury also pointed to inconsistent vegetation management practices across Marin’s fire districts, where the number of dedicated vegetation inspectors varies significantly. 

The largest fire department, Marin County Fire, has two chief officers, two captains, two part-time inspectors, and four to six seasonal defensible space inspectors. By contrast, many smaller departments—including Bolinas, Stinson and Inverness—cannot afford to dedicate even a single firefighter to full-time inspection duties. (Bolinas and Stinson recently hired part-time personnel to enforce Public Resource Code 1491, which requires anyone who owns, leases or maintains any building or structure in California to comply with rules governing defensible space.)

The jury had four main recommendations for the new joint-powers authority. First, that it create a comprehensive, countywide vegetation management plan that addresses vegetation along evacuation routes and includes both a campaign to mobilize public participation and low-income subsidies. This would involve hiring at least 30 new civilian vegetation inspectors and at least eight fire crews focused on fuel reduction in high-risk areas. 

Second, the agency must research and plan for the mass movement of populations along designated evacuation routes. The jury called on the Transportation Authority of Marin to convene all stakeholders before Dec. 31 to address congestion on escape routes. 

The third task the jury gave the proposed agency was to change the two primary alert systems in the county—Alert Marin and Nixle—from opt-in systems to opt-out systems. Just 10 percent of residents are signed up for Alert Marin, a notification system that reaches cell phones, email and landlines. The jury did not provide an exact percentage for registrants to Nixle, which only targets smartphones, but estimated it was similar to Alert Marin. 

There are other systems that provide redundancy, though they all also rely on cell signals or power and are therefore vulnerable to damage. These include the Emergency Alert System, Wireless Emergency Alerts, television and radio bulletins and social media. 

“Designing a warning system that requires the public to sign up and then failing to advertise adequately its existence, fails to meet even minimum standards of emergency preparedness and common sense,” the jury simmered.   

In addition to creating universal alert systems, the report also recommended the expanded use of sirens—though only paired with long-range acoustic devices, which emit extra-loud tones and voice messages. 

The last recommendation for the new joint-powers agency was to improve education. “Ultimately, to be prepared for wildfire, everyone must take responsibility for their own property and join their neighbors to build strong, fire resistant communities. We must shake off apathy, get informed and act,” the jury urged.

The report presented seven questions for the public to consider. If the answer to any of them is no, one is not prepared: “Have I created defensible space around my home? Hardened my home against ember showers? Discussed evacuation plans with my family? Identified two exit routes from my neighborhood? Stocked emergency supplies to last 72 hours? Signed up for all emergency alerts? Packed a to-go bag?”

The report recommended that the new agency adopt a comprehensive education program focused on action for residents. 

It also promoted the creation of Firewise Communities in every neighborhood; there are currently 30 countywide. Certified by Firewise USA—which educates on the risk of wildfire and encourages neighbors to take immediate action around preparedness— Firewise Communities develop plans that guide their risk-reduction activities. 

The other group that conducts education, FIREsafe Marin, needs to expand its staff and activities from its current single, part-time employee, the jury wrote. 

The group requested responses to the report by mid-July from every fire district and city, the Board of Supervisors, the Transportation Authority of Marin, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and FIREsafe Marin.

The Inverness Volunteer Fire District board will formally respond this summer, but Wade Holland, an administrator with the town’s linked utility district, said “a clear take-away from the report is that we need to put more emphasis into organizing the community for evacuations. There are only two ways out, by rowboat and Sir Francis Drake, and we have never put much thought into that.” 

He added, “How the county notifies people and how they respond: this is the kind of coordination we can help to do at a local level.” 

 

The report, “Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach,” can be found on the county website under Marin County Civil Grand Jury department’s page, under reports.