Road closure called 'revenge'A few days after a judge tossed a Bella Vista man’s lawsuit alleging firefighters unnecessarily set his property ablaze, managers at a neighboring inmate fire camp closed the road above his home.
The closure has forced the half-dozen or so property owners on the ridge above Sugar Pine Conservation Camp to take a perilous, 45-minute detour along a dirt road that they say becomes all but impassable in poor weather.
|Road is open only for access to the Sugar Pine Conservation Camp.|
Contributed Photo/Doug Wenham of Cal Fire
“It’s 100 percent revenge,” said Steve Sabatino, who owns a home on Sugar Pine Camp Road below the gate and also has started developing property above the now-closed gate.
Sabatino, 46, sued the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in November 2008 alleging that firefighters set his property on fire unnecessarily in what’s known as a burnout operation, a firefighting technique used to stall or slow an approaching blaze.
In his suit, he alleged that though the 2008 Pine Fire stayed at least a half-mile from his property, firefighters set his land on fire and their heavy equipment damaged his driveway.
In all, the suit sought close to $75,000 in damage.
In September, a Shasta County Superior Court judge threw out the suit.
Judge Bradley Boeckman ruled that the state’s Constitution mandates that firefighters and other public safety officials are exempt from damage they cause to private property during the course of their duties when an official State of Emergency is declared.
The gate was closed a few days after the suit was dismissed. Residents who live on Backbone Ridge say they were given no warning before they were locked out.
Unit Chief Doug Wenham of Cal Fire’s operations in Shasta and Trinity counties says that the lawsuit had nothing to do with the gate being closed and the timing is merely coincidental.
He said there was no reason to retaliate against Sabatino, especially since a judge ruled in the fire department’s favor.
Managers of Sugar Pine Conservation Camp have discussed for years what to do about the road, he said,
He said that though residents have used Sugar Pine Camp Road for years, they’ve never really had the legal right to do so.
A sign at the entrance to the road has long declared the road private, and the gate has been locked from time to time to remind residents it was private, he said.
“I think several people have bought property up there under the assumption that Sugar Pine Camp Road is a legal access when we don’t think it is,” Wenham said.
He said the fire department’s lawyers suggested to close the road amid worries that residents’ construction equipment and car traffic on the road was risking the safety of inmate fire crews, firefighters and corrections officers as they traveled to and from the camp.
There also were worries that contraband was being delivered to inmates at the camp from Sugar Pine Camp Road, Wenham said in a letter he sent to residents on Nov. 1 explaining the closure.
Plus, residents on Backbone Ridge have never paid to maintain the road, he said.
He said there may still be hope that someday the ridge’s residents could use the road under the same easement agreements the camp has.
He said that first, ridge residents would need get permission to use the road from the 10 property owners, including U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which own land along the road.
“Our easement doesn’t allow us to grant access to other folks,” Wenham said.
Residents who live on Backbone Ridge Road above Sugar Pine Conservation camp between Bella Vista, Jones Valley and Ingot say the closed gate has made their lives infinitely more difficult.
They say the closure couldn’t have come at a worse time.
For years, they’ve been allowed to drive down Sugar Pine Camp Road to reach Highway 299.
Now, they say, just traveling to church or to the grocery store in Bella Vista or Redding requires a 45-minute detour along Seaman Gulch Road, a steep dirt drive that becomes treacherous in the snow.
Bartley Fleharty, a Redding attorney representing families on the ridge, said that people who use a private road for at least five years have what’s known as a prescriptive easement. In that situation, legally, a private landowner can’t block a road that’s been used for years as a local thoroughfare.
Fleharty said there are no such rules when a government agency blocks access.
“The arrogance of the government never ceases to amaze me,” Fleharty said. “By closing the gate, they’ve shut off people from getting to their homes.”
At least one Backbone Ridge resident says he’s not been able to get his children to school because the drive’s no longer safe.
Dane Wigington, 48, said that with the gate closed, he’s been forced to keep his daughter home instead taking her to school in Redding, where she attends class at a competitive charter school.
He said that though teachers have given his daughter temporary assignments she can do at home, school officials have warned she’ll have to drop out if she can no longer attend class.
“If they don’t open the gate, that’s what’s going to happen,” said Wigington, who’s lived on 2,000 acres on the ridge for the past 10 years.
Wigington and others on the ridge say they’ve met with Wenham and camp officials to come up with a solution that would at the very least allow residents to have the combination to the gate’s lock, but fire officials refused to give in.
Larry Back, a 55-year-old Redding pool shop owner, has lived on the ridge since 1986, two years before Sugar Pine camp was built.
He said that for years, neighbors and camp officials have had a good relationship.
He said that before Sugar Pine Camp Road was paved, he got firefighters’ approval to pay thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to widen and improve Seaman Gulch Road above the camp. The move gave firefighters a second access route to the camp.
And soon after he completed the improvements, Back said, a fire broke out on the ridge. He said that later fire command staff thanked him personally for his efforts.
Wigington said he and other residents also have provided cash and labor to help fire crews clear brush and put in fire breaks to reduce the area’s fire risk.
“Everything was just great,” Back said. “We just had this great relationship with Cal Fire and with the camp; it was wonderful. All the sudden, this new gal gets in there, and everything turns into ‘their side’ and ‘our side.’ ”
The “new gal” in question is Cal Fire Battalion Chief Terry Stinson, who recently took over as the camp’s second in command, Wenham said.
“I’ve heard a lot of people up there call her ‘that woman,’ ” Wenham said, chuckling.
Wehman said that though residents have blamed Stinson for locking the gate, it was entirely his decision and a difficult one at that.
“It’s inconvenient as heck (for the ridge residents), I will admit,” he said.
The residents say they’re concerned that without access in or out, emergency crews won’t be able to get to their homes should someone need an ambulance or a sheriff’s deputy.
“There’s no public safety up here,” said Backbone Ridge resident Tom Barner, a retired Shasta County sheriff’s deputy who still fills in from time to time at the department. “A black and white patrol car or an ambulance or a fire truck can’t get up here.”
He said that only a four-wheel drive sheriff’s vehicle could make it to homes on the ridge when Seaman Gulch Road is snowed over, but the closest sheriff department vehicles with four-wheel drive are in Burney or Shingletown, nearly an hour away in good weather.
Wenham said it’s not going to come to that.
“We’ll not strand somebody up there and put them in jeopardy,” Wenham said.
He said crews at the camp actively monitor Seaman Gulch Road. If it becomes impassable to a two-wheel drive, the gate will be open. The gate also would be open to residents should a fire break out on the ridge in the summer months, he said.
Plus, all local public safety dispatch agencies have been given the combination to the lock on Sugar Pine Camp Road. If a resident has an emergency that doesn’t require an ambulance, he or she also can drive to the gate and call the camp.
Wenham said someone from the camp will race down to unlock it.
Ridge residents say they’ve seen Sugar Pine Camp Road open only a couple of times since September. It’s been closed on snowy days as well, they say.
They also doubt the camp officials’ claims that the road was being used to smuggle contraband to the camp.
Wigington said a determined smuggler could just as easily head up Backbone Ridge Road for a delivery.
“If that’s their new excuse, why does that have anything to do with us having the key to the gate?” Wigington asked. “How would that affect their contraband drops?”
Sabatino, the camp’s neighbor who sued Cal Fire, said the heart of the closure is both his suit and his development plans, regardless of whatever rationale fire officials espouse.
“I’m a contractor, and I’m going to build more houses up here,” he said. “They don’t want that around their camp.”
Source: Redding.com Link