Fire prevention stalled in limbo

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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Spreading fire retardant on the notebook while realizing that wildlands blazes pay absolutely no attention at all to governmental boundaries ... For example, if a fire is burning within the confines of an incorporated city, it doesn’t suddenly extinguish itself just because the flames are about to cross into unincorporated county territory. Or, as Auburn may painfully and tragically discover someday, a blaze on federal property charring its way up the American Canyon wall won’t put itself out just because it’s crossing the boundary into the City of Auburn. A few years ago, responsible governmental entities recognized that particular dictum of physics and banded together to create a shaded fuel break protecting Auburn from a fire traveling from neighboring state or federal lands. But then came the recent economic troubles and, not so unexpectedly, the feds decided that their share of costs could be spent elsewhere. That leaves Auburn with a sizable portion of the break now getting overgrown with natural fuel, leaving the city extremely vulnerable to the inevitable. This possible scenario is not lost upon city officials. City Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi says he’s been in talks with his federal counterparts, but admittedly is not getting any tangible results. Councilman Kevin Hanley is working on a petition to be delivered to the feds, one which kindly and respect-ably requests some responsibility be taken by Auburn’s now recalcitrant neighbors. And former councilman, and current Planning Commission member Bob Snyder is even more impatient, and not just because he resides on the canyon rim. He says the problem is evident, insisting that it’s time for Plan B. “We cannot wait around. They (the feds) are supposed to fix their part and they haven’t done so for several years,” he said, in stating what should be the obvious. D’Ambrogi, the City Council and even Snyder are well aware that current policies and financial realities severely hamper the feds from keeping their part of the bargain, but as Snyder puts it: “We can cry now over the lack of funds, or we can really cry later over a pile of ashes that used to be part of Auburn.” Snyder added that he didn’t want to “heap blame and shame” on the feds for the current lack of action, nor what may be an inevitable fire storm which engulfs Auburn, “but something has to be done.” D’Ambrogi has been working hard on the problem, but every time he makes an inroad with the feds “another silly rule or regulation pops up to stop us.” One of those — and he had a litany — is the foolish rule about federally funded grants not being able to be used on federal lands. Yes, it’s stupid, but we’re talking about the federal government. “I’ve had talks with (Senators) Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and with (Congressman) Tom Mc-Clintock, but none of them have been able to clear the way to get something done,” D’Ambrogi said. Angora Fire replay It could be the Angora Fire all over again. You know, that Tahoe blaze where regulations got in the way of common sense, not that those rules helped those folks who are still rebuilding. Snyder, who treats inertia like the disease that it is, has a possible solution. “It’s our city and we probably will have to solve the problem ourselves,” was the way he put it. He said he enjoys certain benefits from living in the canyon area, and certainly wouldn’t hesitate to pay more, or work more, to help protect it. “A lot of my neighbors probably feel the same way, but so far we’re not allowed to do anything on our own to help prevent what could be a tragedy,” he added. He proposes reaching a memo of understanding with the feds, one which allows city and volunteer work parties to enter the federal land to get the vital clean-up work accomplished. But D’Ambrogi has already staggered down that bureaucratic path with predictable results. “Every time we bring this up with the feds, we get some sort of reason it can’t work, such as all volunteers will need to be covered by workers comp laws, and other issues of liability.” Whether the government is just being overly cautious, or stupid, or spelling the word “lie-ability” is a matter of conjecture. Of course, none of that sets well with Snyder. He’s also mulling over just bursting through the boundaries and getting the clearing done without having the necessary permits or oversight. “If it comes down to it, then civil disobedience is not out of the question. The bottom line is that the federal government is responsible for maintenance of that adjacent land.” Nobody should argue that Plan B is needed. The only debate is which form it will take. Jim Ruffalo can be reached at jim ruffalo@yahoo. com.