With anxiety mounting over the upcoming fire season, residents of the Ponderosa Hills subdivision between Tuolumne and Twain Harte say they’re concerned about a key evacuation route that hasn’t been properly maintained in more than three years.
Several people who live in the neighborhood attended a public meeting on Tuesday to ask the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors to prioritize fixing Mount Provo Road, one of two ways out for the roughly 800 residents.
The comments were made during an update on the county’s efforts to prepare communities for potential blazes like last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed more than 80 people and incinerated the town of Paradise.
Michelle Bentz submitted a petition she and 17 of her neighbors signed that sought an accessible alternate evacuation route for the community.
“As it stands now, we only have one road in and one road out,” said Bentz, who’s lived in the neighborhood 16 years. “The last few years have been slightly terrifying not knowing where we can leave in the event that a fire would happen.”
Other residents shared similar concerns about the road, which they said would be difficult for four-wheel-drive vehicles to drive without getting stuck.
County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who represents the area that is part of District 3, said he drove the road while campaigning for office last year and got stuck in his four-wheel-drive Toyota 4Runner.
“I barely made it out alive and there were no fires,” Kirk joked, before adding that the experience and seeing the devastation from the deadly Camp Fire made him look into options for the road.
The road primarily belongs to the U.S. Forest Service but also goes through private property and land belonging to federal Bureau of Land Management, which makes getting approval to do work on it somewhat difficult.
Kirk said he found there have been five fires where people had to use that road. He said it has been three to five years since it’s been maintained.
“If there was some way in the next few months to figure out a way to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and get a permit to address the road, that would be great, but my concern is we’re running out of time.” he said. “I need that road fixed.”
Josh White, chief of the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said his agency has the resources and equipment to quickly fix that road as long as they can get a permit from the Forest Service or whomever else would need to give them permission.
White said he’s been hearing about the road since he became the chief of the unit six years ago.
County Supervisor Karl Rodefer described the project as “low hanging fruit that’s achievable,” but complicated due to the mix of owners.
“Once you get the permits, it’s a matter of hours (to complete),” Rodefer said. “Not days or months.”
Mountain Elizabeth Road in District 2 is in similar shape and would provide an alternate escape route for people in the Cedar Ridge area, according to County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who represents that community.
The board also received an update from Liz Peterson, coordinator of the county Office of Emergency Services, about progress on an initiative launched at the beginning of the year to help communities improve fire safety and preparedness.
Peterson said a task force working on the initiative identified the six threats to address first as heavy fuels for fires, children in schools, a lack of individualized community plans, narrow road easements, limited ingress and egress options, and inadequate water infrastructure for fire flow.
County officials are also putting together a program to assist seniors and people with physical limitations in creating defensible space around their homes, which will be funded through a $1.6 million state grant.
The initial five communities that will be targeted for the work are Ponderosa Hills, Cedar Ridge, Campo Seco/Campbells Flat area, Fir/Meadowbrook Drive area, and Big Oak Flat, which were identified as the most in need.
Money from the same grant is also being used to reduce brush and other fire fuels from the sides of roads. That work is scheduled to be done this month along Tuolumne, Cherokee, Ferretti and Priest Coulterville roads, followed by Phoenix Lake Road next month.
A separate $96,000 grant that the county recently received from the state will also be used to develop a program that will help areas of the county become recognized as Firewise communities by the National Fire Protection Association, though the details are still being worked out.
The board also unanimously voted to establish a citizens advisory committee on fire safety that will have regular public meetings and consist of one member of the public from each of the five supervisorial districts, along with two at-large members.
County Undersheriff Neil Evans also attended the meeting and encouraged people to sign up for the county’s Everbridge Emergency Notification System, which allows residents to receive alerts from the county Office of Emergency Services and Sheriff’s Office.
People can register for the system online at www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov . Home, cell, or alternate phone numbers can be registered. Email and text notifications are also available.
Emergency information is also distributed by the offices through the radio, TV news, and their respective social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“The Everbridge system is not a cure all, it’s not the only tool in the toolbox, but we would encourage the public to sign up with Everbridge so they can stay engaged with what’s happening,” Evans said of the need for residents to be vigilant.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.