Nevada City and Grass Valley, CA mobilize in response to the Jones Fire

Catastrophe in Paradise has spurred emergency planning

The Jones Fire in the South Yuba River Canyon soon after it started at 11:30 a.m. Monday August 17, 2020 - photo: Heidi Starr

Since before the Camp Fire destroyed the city of Paradise, California, residents of the Sierra foothills cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City have been worried about wildfire. Evacuation  orders have now been lifted but the lessons of Paradise and subsequent emergency planning were evident as the region mobilized to prevent the loss of property and life.

Pascale Fusshoeller has operated YubaNet, an online news site, since 1999. In that time, YubaNet has become a vital source for wildfire and emergency information in the Nevada City and Grass Valley region. Fusshoeller has reported on countless fires over the years, but the Jones Fire has the community on edge.

“What is unnerving is its location,” Fusshoeller said by phone. “It started pretty far down in the south Yuba Canyon, but very close to Nevada City and Grass Valley, which then ended up causing evacuations, mandatory evacuations for 4,000 people, and another 11,000 to 12,000 under evacuation advisory.

“Because yesterday the weather, all of a sudden, we had incredibly high winds that were A, not in the forecast, and B, we had sustained winds of 25 miles an hour with gusts of 47 miles an hour.”

The Camp Fire accelerated emergency wildfire planning in Nevada County. The question was no longer if a catastrophic fire would occur, but when.

“It has changed. I remember when the Camp Fire was almost contained, I thought, let’s have a town hall just to hear what people have to say. And we had it at the Rood Center at the Board of Supervisors Chambers that holds over 150 people.

“We opened the doors at 5:30, and at 5:32 the room was full and there were hundreds of people still outside. That’s when we realized that people are not only aware, they are concerned, and they really, really realize the danger that these fires pose,” Fusshoeller said.

Emergency instructions outside the Rood Center in Nevada City, California – photo: Heidi Starr

With deep buy-in from public and private stakeholders, all levels of government, the Nevada County communities prepared for catastrophe.

“The Fire Safe Council, the Fire Wise Communities and Nevada County Office of Emergency Services (OES), we have a whole campaign called Ready Nevada County. They all really ramped it up, and the response from the public is pretty amazing,” Fusshoeller said.

“People have realized that yes, it’s nice to have trees, but fewer trees that are in good condition are better. Finally, the putting up reflective this address signs so that firefighters can actually find their driveways because of the dispersed nature of where a lot of people live here.

“People are prepared. They have go bags. They have communication plans. They have signed up for the emergency notification system. It is a complete shift in mentality saying ‘oh yeah, fires are small, they’ll get them,’ but after Camp Fire, everybody realized that sometimes they don’t get them. As good as firefighters are,  Mother Nature, she’s better.”

Nevada County, California has a population of nearly 100,000 people. Truckee is the largest city with some 16,000 citizens. Grass Valley has a population just over 12,000, and Nevada City, 3,100. Doing the math, that means roughly 70,000 people live outside those urban centers, many in remote areas surrounded by coniferous forest.

Mandatory evacuations have already displaced thousands in the Nevada City, Grass Valley area over the last 24 hours. What about evacuation centers during the pandemic?

“The evacuation centers are set up by the county,” Pascale said. “They (Nevada County) provide cooling centers and evacuation centers with social distancing. So the Emergency Operations Center is activated, and OES and public health people are out there, and they will help people.

“And then we have some amazing nonprofits that also help animals, for example. There’s a lot of people that have to evacuate the animals, and larger animals like horses etc. Right now, at the fairgrounds, there are approximately 60 animals that are cared for by the volunteers of the animal evacuation group.

“FREED, the Center for Independent Living, is helping people that either have disabilities or that need help with medical equipment. That’s all set up. So there is now a whole system in place and it works really well.”

Due to warm weather demands on the electric grid, Pacific Gas and Electric has informed customers to expect rolling blackouts, but Nevada County residents are battle tested when it comes to a lack of electrical power. Last summer, to prevent power lines from starting fires, PG&E shutdown power to Grass Valley and Nevada City for several days, so this summer, residents are better prepared.

“The solar industry in Nevada County is doing extremely well,” Fusshoeller said of preparedness for a cut in electric power. “I would say that the hardware stores and the electricians are installing more standby generators than ever because people realize that if you are, especially if you don’t live within the city where you have city water, if you don’t have power, you don’t have water.

“At the height of the fire season with winds at 40 miles an hour coming at you, you want to have water, so people have either installed solar with backup batteries or standby generators. There’s a lot of that going around because these blackouts have affected people enormously because some of them, last year, some people in Nevada County were out (of electrical power) for 8 days straight.  That is just unacceptable.

“And even though PG&E is replacing poles and putting up insulated lines and doing tree work, today we got the info that rolling blackouts between today and tomorrow are likely. So that adds to the stress. It adds to the anxiety that people have because of the fire. Now I have no power. Now the temperatures are in the triple digits. So people become very self-reliant.”

What happened in Paradise scared Nevada County residents. Gone are the days of waving off the perils of a fire.

“We are actually in the Evacuation Advisory Zone, and yesterday I drove to the evening briefing. And as I was driving to the briefing, I saw people didn’t have their cars in garages. Cars were out, and they were pointing towards the road. That tells me that the message of being aware and being ready to go actually is really sinking in. I’ve never seen that many cars that were parked that way. And it’s really good to see that because that is so important. You got to be aware, yes, you will get a phone call. Yes, we’ll hear sirens. But if you’re not ready, well, it really doesn’t help, but I think the community really got the message loud and clear. And so I’m somewhat optimistic.”


Brian Bahouth was news director at KVMR radio in Nevada City, California, 2008-2009 and a career public media journalist. Support his work in the Ally.