Mill Creek plan to include fire risk assessment, emergency preparedness priorities and more
The unincorporated community of Mill Creek Road in the western outskirts of Healdsburg is an idyllic place to live. Surrounded by large redwood trees, lush greenery and tight, winding roads, the area is quiet and calm. However, living in a tucked away corner of the woods comes with high fire danger, and residents are taking the initiative to up the ante on emergency preparedness.
On Jan. 4 around 60 Mill Creek Road residents met at the Healdsburg Community Center to take the first steps in creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and to discuss the community’s emergency preparedness priorities.
Roberta Macintyre, board president for Fire Safe Sonoma, said a CWPP is meant to compliment a general plan or a hazard mitigation plan, however, a CWPP is more specific to a certain area or community.
“It looks at an area and measures the (fire) risks and categorizes them with the idea ... that the group creates a plan to mitigate those identified risks,” Macintyre said.
Having a CWPP also allows a group to seek funding for identified projects that would work to mitigate fire risks like vegetation overgrowth.
The first step in creating a CWPP is to invite residents in the community to an initial brainstorming session to discuss what risks are present and which ones neighbors would like to prioritize and address.
The Mill Creek neighborhood is at this first step and residents Mark Farmer and Mark Menny are leading the effort.
“After the Tubbs Fire, Mark and I looked for a way to get organized,” Farmer said. “We live on Mill Creek Road, an 8-mile, windy road with one way out,” and a lot of vegetation Farmer said.
Farmer and Menny started thinking about what their community would do in the event of a fire, how would they mobilize, how would they get out?
Farmer learned that if a community has a CWPP, then there’s more of a likelihood to receive funding for vegetation management and resources like evacuation routes, or new street address and reflective signs.
“It just seemed to us to be an appropriate structure for helping us to think about how we want to move forward as a community to improve our safety and preparedness,” Menny said.
“We wanted to go forward to develop these plans and involve the community,” Farmer said.
So, Farmer and Menny held a meeting along with Healdsburg Fire, Geyserville Fire, CalFire and Fire Safe Sonoma.
“Mark and I have done a lot of work to develop and organize a network within Mill Creek and it just seemed like the CWPP was a way of coming together as a community and help us prioritize what we think are the important things that we want to accomplish, as well as providing a structure if we should decide to pursue outside funding for financial help on projects,” Menny said.
During the meeting residents identified four main risks to work on mitigating: roads, evacuation, vegetation management and communication.
“Vegetation management is a big one,” Menny said. “It is about 8 miles in and dead ends and is heavily wooded on both sides. It’s beautiful, we are surrounded by redwoods, but we are surrounded by forest and there hasn’t been a major fire there in over 50 years. Does that make us at greater risk than the folks in Fountaingrove or the folks in Knights Valley? I don’t know, but we are all facing this together and the beauty of a CWPP process is that it really brings the community together to help set the priorities.”
Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville said the fire load in the Mill Creek area is a concern because there is a lot of flammable and dense vegetation, like Douglas fir.
“Vegetation is not just like grass — it is more than just brush — it is a forest and when a forest burns it produces a lot of smoke, a lot of embers and that is going to make it very hard for people to get out with a lot of smoke and a lot of heat,” Turbeville said. He added there is also a risk for downed trees since many fires occur during wind events. “That can be a hazard as well with trees falling and fire-weakened trees fall over too.”
Turbeville has been helping Farmer and Menny with the CWPP process. He also visited Menny’s property on Mill Creek Road on Jan. 14 to help Menny conduct a controlled burn of a vegetation pile.
“It’s all about increasing awareness and how do we choose projects that reduce and minimize that risk,” Turbeville said.
Roads are also a major area of concern since Mill Creek Road only has one road in. It also doesn’t help that signage and home addresses in the area are confusing.
Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister, who is also helping with the CWPP, said it can be hard to respond to calls to the Mill Creek area since the home addresses are out of order.
While Mill Creek is out of Healdsburg city limits, Healdsburg Fire is contracted out to respond to the area.
While residents in the area have conducted an evacuation drill, there is only one route out, which could be difficult in the event of an emergency.
“We have an evacuation route that we’ve developed in the last year and we got the county to fund some signs. The 7-mile route goes through private property, it is overland. One of the landowners up there basically offered his logging route as a way out. It connects Palmer Creek to Stillwater Road so that is one way out, but we probably want to develop a second evacuation route,” Menny said.
Communication poses to be a risk since the neighborhood has bad cell reception, which could make it difficult to receive Nixle alerts or evacuation notifications. Farmer said figuring out a method for communication during a disaster is important.
“We might have to explore different communication options, having an all hazards National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, or phone trees,” Farmer said.
Farmer and Menny said the brain storming session brought up a lot of good ideas on how to reduce the risks of the area.
Farmer said some of the ideas brought up by participants included having an alternative evacuation route, improving home address signs, providing education on defensible space and go-bags and creating a neighbor communication plan.
Menny said they have also talked about developing landing zones for evacuation by helicopter if necessary.
“We’ve got no shortage of ideas it is just a matter of prioritizing them and executing them,” he said.
“In terms of the next step, we have formed a task force, a group of 15 of us, who will then take this list and try to distill it down and really determine what the next steps are and start to draft the CWPP,” Menny said.
Macintyre said the third step is to get government stakeholders involved and receive input. Another meeting is held to garner input on the plan from local businesses or the community’s chamber of commerce.
A study of the area’s topography, geography, population, defensive space, ecosystem and fuel breaks is taken and a risk assessment is done.
“After that a risk assessment is conducted to look at different areas of the community. Once that is done then you apply a scientific based assessment tool and look at things like fire response, water supply, or road conditions,” Macintyre said.
The risk tool will then give a rating of low or high fire risk, “Then you have to ask what can you do to get that threat down?”
“Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do, roads can be challenging,” such is the case with Mill Creek Road, Macintyre said.
From there the group takes a look to see if there are any feasible projects that could be done to help mitigate the fire risks and bring down the fire threat.
Before the plan is complete several entities have to sign off on it. For Mill Creek, these could include the district supervisor, Healdsburg Fire, Geyserville Fire and Fire Safe Sonoma.
“We don’t really have a timetable but we’d like to get it done during the spring before the next fire season. The idea is if we do go for outside funding a lot of these funding sources are available in the fall,” Menny said. “We are motivated and we have good momentum behind it.”
Long term benefits
“It allows folks to be more organized,” Collister said. She said it also helps educate people on vegetation management and home hardening.
“Mill Creek is an awesome community. After the complex fires they jumped on it and wanted to learn about how to respond, evacuation ideas etc. They are doing the right things,” Collister said.
In addition to working on fire preparedness Menny said working on the CWPP has brought him closer to his neighbors.
“We had blasted out to our community and said this is what we are trying to do and we really encourage you to come and it is a great opportunity to let us know what your priorities are and to meet your neighbors and that is what it’s really all about, making sure that we all know each other,” Menny said. “That for me has been the primary benefit of this whole thing over the last couple of years, is getting to know my neighbors. I know that they’ll look after me and then I can look out for them if it ever comes to that.”
To see what a complete CWPP looks like, take a look at the Fitch Mountain community plan here: firesafesonoma.org/wp-content/uploads/fitch_mountain_cwpp.pdf.