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Saturday, June 4, 2011

CAL FIRE Sugar Pine Camp Road controversy continues

State fire camp commanders once again plan to close the only paved road to Backbone Ridge near Bella Vista, forcing residents to negotiate a bumpy 45-minute detour down a treacherous mountain road.

In a letter mailed last week to property owners on the ridge, Rick Kyle, unit chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Shasta Trinity Unit, said residents’ keys to the gate at the bottom of Sugar Pine Camp Road wouldn’t work as of this week.

“In absence of a Road Use and Maintenance Association, the gate will remain locked indefinitely,” Kyle wrote.

Before fire commanders suddenly closed Sugar Pine Camp Road last fall, ridge residents had been using the paved route to reach Highway 299 since the camp was built in 1988. Residents said that though a sign marks the road as private, past fire commanders had given them permission to use it. Some had been given permission even before they built their homes.

Other residents say they’ve also helped pay for road repairs over the years.

Yet their access was blocked in September, when Cal Fire locked the gate for the first time, forcing the 20 or so people with ridge property to drive along Seaman Gulch Road, an unpaved road they say tacks on an extra 45-minute drive to Highway 299 and becomes all but impassable in poor weather.

After the residents’ concerns were reported in the Record Searchlight in December, Cal Fire gave keys to the ridge residents, with an agreement that they would form an association which would help pay for the road’s upkeep. But first the residents also needed to get permission to use the road from 10 separate property owners who own land along Sugar Pine Camp Road, including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

When they signed an agreement to use the gate in December, the residents were told they had until Wednesday to meet the requirements, Division Chief Marc Romero, the camp’s Cal Fire commander, said this afternoon.

“Their use of the gate has reached that deadline,” he said.

About a dozen of ridge residents met with reporters this morning along the highway outside the soon-to-be-locked gate. They say they’re extremely frustrated with the fire camp commanders who were working with them, but then suddenly announced the gate closure.

“We’re still in negotiation with them, but they close the gate right in the middle of negotiations,” said Doug Bennett, a Redding resident who’s been developing property on the ridge.

As the property owners talked to reporters, a Sugar Pine Conservation Camp inmate crew used weed trimmers, lawn mowers and leaf blowers to cut the foliage growing along the side of the highway.

The sounds of the small-engine motors made it tough for reporters’ microphones to pick up the residents’ remarks, something ridge resident Dane Wigington said was no accident. He said he believes camp commanders must have learned of the impromptu press conference and sent the crews to disrupt it.

“In the 10 years I’ve been here, they’ve never been here (to trim weeds),” he said.

Romero said that’s not the case. He said camp inmates were assigned to trim the road well before the meeting was scheduled.

“They haven’t been idly sitting in camp waiting for someone to give them an assignment to be disruptive,” Romero said.

It’s not the first time the residents have claimed retaliatory tactics by camp commanders.

Cal Fire closed the gate on Sugar Pine Camp Road in September, just a few days after a Shasta County judge dismissed a suit filed by one of the camp’s neighbors. Steve Sabatino sued in November 2008 alleging fire crews damaged his driveway with heavy equipment and unnecessarily set part of his property ablaze in a summer-time burnout operation, a firefighting technique used to stall an approaching blaze. He alleged the fire that triggered the burnout didn’t come within a half mile of his property. He said the fire crews did $75,000 in damage to his property.

Shasta County Superior Court Judge Bradley Boeckman ruled last fall the state’s Constitution mandates when an official state of emergency is declared firefighters and other public safety officials are exempt from damage they cause to private property during the course of their duties.

Cal Fire crews denied the September gate closure was retribution for the suit, but Sabatino said the timing of the gate closure showed the commanders’ true motives.

Cal Fire officials maintained they closed the road over worries contraband was being smuggled to the inmates who work at the camp. They also expressed concerns that Sabatino and others developing property on the ridge were putting inmate crews’ and camp commanders’ safety in danger by driving heavy equipment on the paved road.

Romero said there also are nearly “weekly occurrences where drivers have to take emergency evasive action” from passenger cars and delivery trucks driving too fast.

In December, Sabatino agreed to stop driving equipment up the ridge in exchange for permission to use the gate.

Residents say they’re worried the locked gate is going hinder access for sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and ambulance crews trying to reach their homes in an emergency.

There’s also concern they’d be unable to quickly escape should the prisoners become unruly.

“If there’s a riot or anything like that up here, we’re stuck up here in the confines of a prison,” Sabatino said.

In his letter, Kyle wrote that the camp road would be opened for residents should an emergency like a wildfire arise.

“Emergency responders do have access to Sugar Pine Camp Road if needed,” he wrote.

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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