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Is Napa County better emergency prepared?

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It is winter now and it is the right time to pose the question whether Napa County is better prepared for the summer fires than it was during the fiasco in 2017 when two close friends escaped from their burning homes by the skin of their teeth only to encounter fire engines parked right below their driveways doing nothing while waiting for instructions.

By a variety of means and websites the county is providing helpful information about what citizens in vulnerable communities should include in a grab bag at a moment’s notice, post signs in front of their properties and how they should stay informed using Nixle, watching TV and listening to radio (though all of the above were inaccessible due to inoperative networks).

But I have seen nothing the county itself has done to be better organized, to improve early fire detection, physical warnings when networks fail, administer actual help in evacuations or in establishing and maintaining public safe evacuation routes wherever they have been absent in the past. In short, what specifically has the county done to keep us safer during power and internet failures before and during a fire incident than in the past?

In the absence of leadership, many neighborhood groups have taken the initiative to form helpful networks to keep us safer. Inconceivably, defying reason and common sense, the county continues unabated to pursue land use policies which do exactly the opposite.

While fire can affect any property anywhere, the most vulnerable populations are the ones in the Ag Watershed Zoning District which are typically served by substandard roads, none of which comply with any of the county’s road standards. They are far too narrow, winding, lack prescribed turnouts, public secondary accesses or are out of compliance with cul-de-sac maximum distance criteria.

Thousands of us live on such roads. On many occasions we must wait for hours - sometimes days - for the county to remove fallen trees, downed power lines or incapacitated trucks (including tourist-carrying buses) all of which shut down escape routes in cases of emergencies. In the past two months, the Calistoga postmaster refused to deliver mail to upper Diamond Mountain Road twice for one week each due to unsafe conditions. God forbid there was a fire.

Yet the county keeps approving commercial development (vineyards and wineries with their entertainment centers) on such roads which bring more traffic, large trucks, large equipment, tourist buses all of which prevent access and not least, more visitors who increase fire danger.

Residents in such areas are left with no alternatives but to appeal such projects with follow up lawsuits as in the case of a mega-winery approved at the top of winding Soda Canyon Road with no secondary public access. Most recently one more winery was approved by the Planning Commission on Diamond Mountain, on a 3-mile cul-de-sac from Highway 29, the last mile only 12 foot wide. To make matters worse, this 20,000-gallon custom crush facility needs to import 80% of its grapes, requires four variances, including relaxing driveway slope standards and stream setbacks.

In approving this winery, the commissioners cited no “direction from the Supervisors” and the stalled “Remote Winery Ordinance” as if exercising common sense and safety protections for residents needed them. Now on appeal, has it occurred to anyone that there are locations in this valley where a winery is not appropriate?

However, whenever the so-called Remote Winery Ordinance will be taken up it will have a problem right from the start in defining “remote” and justifiably so because remoteness is not the issue. It is safe access and secondary public escape routes which are.

When the narrow roads in the Ag Watershed were created, commercial uses were not contemplated. If the county wishes such development, it must ensure that access is at a minimum via County Standard General Minor roads with public secondary accesses of equal standard, inter-visible turnouts and in compliance with mandated county cul-de-sac provisions. Why does the County have standards in the first place if it chooses to ignore them?

It is not the best policy to have citizens create law via Initiatives but if the county fails to act in the interest of their safety, they will have no option but to resort to one. The year 2022 is not far away.

As a side note, a scientist professor at U.C. Berkeley has invented an inexpensive heat-sensing device primarily for medical applications but one which has great potential for early fire detection. The Moraga Fire Department in Los Angeles is evaluating this technology which will not be fully developed for another two or three years. It would be advisable for Napa County to join in that effort.

George Caloyannidis


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