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Catastrophic Auburn wildfire inspires cooperative solution

Another view
By: Kevin Hanley, Auburn city councilman
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Your editorial, “2010: Let’s get back to basics,” (Jan. 3), noted that the “horrific 49 Fire reminded us what can happen when fire, wind and drought conditions mix” and that working to prevent a catastrophic fire in the American River Canyon is a key public safety challenge for city officials and Auburn residents. The canyon is indeed “a tinderbox at Auburn’s back door.” Your editorial correctly recommended that local officials help facilitate a cooperative, private/public partnership between various governmental agencies and with help from residents and volunteers to lower the dangerous levels of wood fuel from the canyon. I agree with this recommendation. Lowering the danger to residents and business owners from a fire that starts in the American River Canyon is a two-step process. The first step is to develop and approve a cooperative agreement called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Auburn Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to implement and manage wood fuel reduction in the American River Shaded Fuel Break, a 300-foot wide zone that stretches from the southeast corner of the city to the Foresthill Bridge. Some skeptics told me that the mammoth and overburdened federal government would never sign an MOU with a small town like Auburn. “We’re a mere gnat on the back of an elephant,” they said. The skeptics were wrong. In our discussions with local reclamation officials, we found that they were also concerned about the danger of a canyon fire. They shared the sentiments expressed by the over 300 Auburn residents who signed our city-sponsored “citizen’s petition” that urged government agencies to “act with urgency … to remove dangerous brush and wood fuel in the American River Canyon along Auburn’s eastern and southern boundary.” Mark D’Ambrogi, Auburn’s Fire Chief, worked closely with local reclamation officials in drafting an MOU that would be acceptable to the federal government and the city of Auburn. On Feb. 22, the Auburn City Council voted to ratify the MOU with reclamation. This is a first in Auburn’s history. But we must also implement an indispensable second step — a “project-specific permission slip” — if we are going to lower the danger of catastrophic fire. This second step also presents unique challenges, but I believe these can be overcome. Unlike the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has a “variance program” which allows private homeowners to conduct fuel reduction on adjacent BLM lands with approval, reclamation doesn’t have a similar program. After all, lands managed by reclamation are supposed to be underwater. But the Auburn Dam was never built. The good news is that reclamation has expressed a willingness to explore alternatives with the city in which wood fuel reduction can take place under management by the Auburn Fire Department. Auburn’s Fire Department will be taking the lead in working in getting reclamation approval for specific fuel reduction projects, obtaining grant funds, ensuring that private landowners are carrying out their responsibilities in maintaining sufficient defensible space around their homes and gladly taking advantage of any volunteer help that may be available. The bottom-line is that we must have specific projects in place and operating to remove the dangerous levels of wood fuel in the canyon before the fire season starts. The problem is getting more dangerous each year. The time for action on the ground is now. While working through various levels of governments to solve public policy problems can be frustrating and time-consuming, we should never give in. It’s like what Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the students at Harrow School on Oct. 29, 1941: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Kevin Hanley serves on the Auburn City Council and as chairman of the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council