Recently the Sierra County Fire Safe and Watershed Council met to discuss the complaint that Highway 49 wouldn’t be safe if there were a fire in heat and traffic of late July.
The council didn’t discuss the highway, but rather, the protocol they would follow to get expert opinion, contact Cal Trans, identify specific areas of concern, and see what action is required. If the council starts now, by next summer they might have a solution worked out.
But, the Prospect decided to go out and take a look at 49, to see how it would be if the unthinkable happened, and a fire started, say near Goodyear’s bar, in the heat of tourist season. Note, we did not contact Cal Trans for an interview; they might already have a plan to tidy up the brush and trees along 49.
Fire is unpredictable, and if, say, a motor home overturned near Goodyear’s Bar, and a fire resulted, many things might happen. The fire might be extinguished right away. Wind might push it against the river. It might climb straight up the canyon wall to the rim. Or, if a hot wind is blowing up canyon, it might turn the whole system into a flue. Those with heavenly connections should pray every night that never happens.
Burning trees and bushes, and no way to go around.
But, what if it did? Some local folks know alternative ways out and have the vehicles to travel them; others and most tourists would be trapped together with only the highway as an exit. In any case, the way out is always up, the direction fire travels, creating and being driven by its own winds. Up is the way people would have to flee.
What kind of ride would that be?
We followed 49 out of Downieville, the route a lot of people would take. Here’s what we found.
Brush and trees climb down the hillside right to the road cut, or often to the edge of the road.
Trees often hang over the road, many crowded on steep, shallow soils.
In some places, trees touch across the road; how would this look in our desperate scenario?
Trees hang low. Ironically, as the Prospect pulled over to take these photos, an orange Cal Trans dump truck passed, and the peak of the dump touched the lowest branches, giving us an idea of how the trees
are kept off the road now. Could low hanging trees drop burning debris on a 5th wheel travel trailer?
We don’t want to alarm people unnecessarily; most likely the Fire Safe and Watershed Council, working will Cal Trans, can identify and resolve the most problematic locations. Even if a fire did break out, County Emergency Services working with the Sheriff’s department and California Highway Patrol, would get everyone safely evacuated.
Still, while we wait for experts to do their business, let’s think about it as a community. Next time you travel 49, do as we did, and think the unthinkable.