Tax could fund agency on wildfire readiness

07/10/2019

Marin is buckling down on wildfire preparedness. 

Following the key recommendation of a civil grand jury report, representatives from cities, towns and fire agencies throughout Marin have formed a working group to explore the creation of a joint powers agency that would develop and implement a new countywide wildfire prevention program. Though the jury suggested a quarter-cent sales tax to fund this effort, the Board of Supervisors instead plans to put a countywide parcel tax on the March 2020 ballot. 

Supervisors formally submitted their response to the jury’s April report, “Wildfire Preparedness: A New Approach,” on Tuesday, largely agreeing with the assessment that Marin is unprepared for a significant wildfire. The board prepared its response in collaboration with county fire chiefs, the sheriff’s office and several other county agencies; responses from cities and towns as well as all the individual fire districts are due later this month.  

Though the investigation was highly critical of the county’s preparedness, the response from the Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, as well as supervisors, has been to mobilize. 

“I thought the grand jury report was terrific,” Kathrin Sears, the board’s president, said on Tuesday as she kicked off the discussion. 

Supervisors believe a new joint powers agency could tackle the majority of the jury’s concerns, including enhancing fuel reduction and vegetation management, evacuation planning and neighborhood preparedness, and strengthening alert and warning systems, defensible space home evaluations and education. The agency would be charged with pursuing grant opportunities for the county. 

Not all of the jury’s more specific recommendations can be implemented right away, however, according to the board. 

Though the jury explicitly pressed the county to hire at least 30 new civilian vegetation inspectors and at least eight fire crews focused on fuel reduction in the areas of highest risk, supervisors deferred staffing increases to the discretion of the joint powers agency.  

The board pushed back on the jury’s directive to turn the Alert Marin and Nixle emergency alert systems into opt-out databases that would reach more residents. 

Alert Marin already includes all available landline and voice-over-internet data for residents and businesses in the county; opting out of the service requires contacting the county’s office of emergency services. Nixle requires subscribing online or via text with a mobile device. 

Adding mobile numbers and emails to either system would require changes in state law, the board wrote in its response to the jury. “At this time, the only way to obtain residents’ mobile numbers and emails is to encourage self-registration; telecommunications companies will not share this data.” 

Yet supervisors did commit to supporting new legislation, such as S.B. 46, that would allow local governments to enter into agreements to access cell phone contact information strictly for the purpose of creating public emergency systems.  

The board questioned the jury’s hope that the county would expand the use of sirens paired with long-range acoustic devices that emit extra-loud tones and voice messages. “Local testing has provided mixed results based on topography and other competing outdoor existing noise,” supervisors wrote. Still, the board acknowledged that such devices can be helpful in some areas, and tasked the joint agency with further analysis of the possibility. 

The board and the jury also diverged over the discussion of the role of Marin’s public transportation system in emergency preparedness. Though the jury argued that public transit was an underutilized resource, supervisors confirmed that the county’s emergency operations center coordinates with Marin Transit through the emergency radio system MERA. All operators for Marin Transit are trained to respond to and assist in emergency situations.

Despite these sticking points, the board largely agreed that all areas of preparedness should be revitalized. 

The supervisors’ letter committed to streamlining vegetation management approaches in the new wildfire prevention program that the joint powers agency would develop, and updating existing codes and procedures as early as this fall. Cooperative compliance, as opposed to a punitive enforcement approach, is the goal. 

The county is also working on publicizing evacuation routes countywide. In 2009, Marin fire agencies developed “mutual threat zone” maps, identifying primary and secondary evacuation routes and preferred evacuation zones. The information is available to mutual aid responders outside of the county, but has not been made publicly available. 

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber explained at Tuesday’s meeting that the maps had to be washed of private information, such as gate codes, before being released.

The board tasked the joint powers agency with further planning for larger-scale evacuations. “Strategies for how to implement measures during a no-notice emergency event would need to be developed, including flexibility to respond to the unique characteristics of each event and the ability to implement measures with limited time, personnel and equipment,” the board wrote. “Coordination with public works agencies and Caltrans would be necessary, and traffic modeling to test best routes and tactics would be needed to help quantify the benefits of different strategies and to support informed decision making.”

Supervisors also stressed that the countywide wildfire prevention program will include a comprehensive education program, one of the jury’s most commonly cited concerns. 

Though responses to the jury’s April report are not due until July 18, the Inverness Public Utility District—which pairs with the fire department for Inverness—submitted a response in June. 

The district agreed there are too few trained vegetation inspectors and fuel reduction crews in the county. It also weighed in that the emergency alert systems don’t reach enough residents, that there are many areas where roads and infrastructure are inadequate for mass evacuations, and that there are insufficient public funds for wildfire preparedness education.