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Our View: Foresthill fire dangers should alarm planners

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It's a trap to start comparing Foresthill concerns about fire and how to evacuate the Divide area with, say, San Diego. Last summer's fire in San Diego “ as well as the specter of other past catastrophic wildfires “ cast a pall over the proceedings during last week's Planning Commission meeting on the Foresthill Divide Community Plan. Of particular concern was a plan by one developer to increase entitlements north of the Foresthill business center from about 600 units to 2,300 units, build an 18-hole golf course in what is now pine forest, and, essentially, drop another 3,000 or so bodies into a Divide community that now numbers about 6,000. The Planning Commission and the Placer County Board of Supervisors will ultimately decide whether to include the Forest Ranch development in the plan or let it move through a separate planning process without the level of approval it would receive if it was inserted in the 20-year planning blueprint. If past decisions are an indication, supervisors would put few roadblocks on the Forest Ranch development proceeding, letting Planning Department staff work out the fine points. In the case of Bickford Ranch in Newcastle and other developments in the Tahoe area, it will also leave the developer to pay for the inevitable court costs when opponents launch a lawsuit. The board in recent years has consistently taken a stance that sells politically well in Placer County. It's that development proceeds because it's the right of property owners to do what they wish on their land. Which comes back to the fire danger and evacuation concerns that were constantly raised during the Feb. 28 hearing in Auburn. Forest Ranch partner Doug Ryan pointed out that the local emergency services plan is to evacuate incrementally. That means as a fire burns in stages, the Divide and its 6,000 residents “ or 10,000 people in 2030 according to county projections “ would leave the area in stages along two-lane Foresthill Road. Ryan said a fire evacuation of one million people last year in San Diego County was a good example of an evacuation that worked well “ and never mind the seven people who died. Three refused to leave and four were illegal immigrants, he said. Ryan and Forest Ranch should put aside San Diego. And opponents of Forest Ranch should also leave the Berkeley Hills fire comparisons alone. Each fire is a unique situation with its own set of unique challenges. The overriding issue isn't what's done in an evacuation in San Diego, Berkeley or Foresthill, it's how the wildland is developed in heavily forested areas of Placer County as more people move into these areas. For Forest Ranch, that means upfront-but-understanding county officials with the guts to say from the start what will or won't work. It's a public safety issue not a property rights issue. Developers “ not just at Forest Ranch “ need to realize that when they buy or speculate on forestland, the lower prices include a different set of parameters than laying out tract homes in Lincoln or Rocklin. County officials need to know they can't rubber stamp projects and then expect taxpayers to foot exorbitant future bills for fire suppression in populated forest areas. Supervisor and planning commissioners “ most of whom don't live in the Sierra region “ have to put their property rights bias aside and listen to fire officials and residents of communities like Foresthill. They'll readily tell them that the biggest hindrance in fighting fires is having to expend an increasingly greater amount of resources to protecting homes that are built “ and planned for construction “ in the wildland.