Fire engines can’t use some roads, bridges 


Blog note: this article (toward the end) references a 2013 grand jury report.
As far as fire response goes, Franziska Schabram did everything right.
After her electric fence sparked a small vegetation fire near the back end of her ranch style home, she picked up the phone and dialed 911. Her and her husband, Roland, did their best to keep the Aug. 25 blaze under control as they waited for emergency responders.
As each minute passed, the fire grew bigger and slowly spread through her 750-acre Valley Springs area ranch.
But from the top of her property overlooking the valley, she watched with shock as a collection of fire engines sat still next to a narrow bridge that leads to her property.
“I was standing on my property, watching helplessly. They were a couple of hundred feet away from me and not able to respond,” she said.
Confused and seemingly without options, Schabram jumped on her all-terrain vehicle and rode over to the narrow and wooden Gilliam Road bridge to determine the cause for the delay.
Jason Robitaille, Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District chief, said that his crews could not safely cross the bridge without putting the health of his firefighters in danger.
The old wooden bridge has a sign posted for a 3-ton load limit. Robitaille said that the engines he attempted to get across the bridge would have far exceeded the posted weight limit. He was also unsure who provided the weight limit certification on the bridge.
“As a fire chief, we’re always concerned on getting our folks to an emergency safely,” said Robitaille. “Based on the infrastructure in place, now it’s causing a great concern.”
Schabram said that the only thing that saved her property was an air drop of flame retardant from a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection aircraft.
For years, the Schabrams have requested county officials address their concerns.
“We’ve felt helpless for years,” said Schabram.
Gilliam Road is a single-lane rural road consisting of gravel that connects Paloma Road to Double Springs Road. The bridge crosses over Young’s Creek and was once used as a stagecoach path long ago.
The road got trickier to manage in 2006. That year, more than 4,400 acres of wetlands were placed under federal protection under the Clean Water Act. The road passes through protected habitats for several species, including the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the vernal pool fairy shrimp and the Northwestern pond turtle.
County officials have said in the past that the cost of applying for and receiving permits to work on roads through federally protected lands becomes too expensive for the county.
In 2006, former Public Works Director Rob Houghton wrote a letter in response to the Schabrams’ claims, stating that the routine maintenance work needed for the road encroaches into the jurisdiction of several federal and state agencies.
“I am disheartened to acknowledge that the physical road work is trivial in comparison to the permitting effort,” Houghton said at the time.
Public Works Director Jeff Crovitz Tuesday called the entire situation a “perfect storm” caused by jurisdictional issues. He said that any work inside the Army Corp of Engineers’ jurisdiction near New Hogan Reservoir would require potentially expensive permitting. He also said that the bridge on Gilliam Road did not qualify for state or federal funding assistance.
The best fix, Crovitz said, would be to reroute the road, which was also suggested in the grand jury report, but that an operation of that size is unlikely at this time.
Crovitz did say that routine maintenance was completed on the road in 2015.
In the meantime, Schabram feels that her safety and the safety of the other three residents on the road are being put in jeopardy.
“If we wouldn’t have been there, or if it was in the middle of the night, it could have ended much differently,” she said.
“After the Butte Fire, you think they would have learned,” she added.
The road, and more importantly, the bridge, has been mentioned by multiple agencies as a potentially hazardous structure for more than a decade, and the Schabrams have felt left in limbo as different agencies determine how to handle the issue.
Former Foothill Fire Protection District Chief Michael Siligo sent a letter to then-District 1 Supervisor Bill Claudino in 2008 informing the county of the risks that the road poses to emergency responders.
“The agency is responsible for the quick and decisive response to life and property emergencies,” he wrote. “Gilliam Road does not lend itself to either.”
He said in the letter that after riding along the road in his two-wheel drive pickup, that water tenders or “larger structural firefighting equipment” would not be able to safely negotiate the route.
The Calaveras County Grand Jury got involved in 2013. After reviewing documents from different fire agencies, the grand jury requested that alterations be made to the road, but acknowledged that the roadway’s status as a wildlife reserve makes it difficult for the county to afford much, if any, action. The grand jury report recommended that the county look into state and federal funding options.
The Gilliam Road Bridge isn’t the only location where emergency responders have had issues. Robitaille said there are five bridges in his district that are problematic for responders. He said that each bridge has weight limits and postings that are either unreadable or missing. A few months ago, an engine collapsed a bridge due to a weight limit misunderstanding. In instances like that one, responders have to find alternative entrances to properties, like they did for the Schabram property.
Robitaille said that the responders took a back entrance to the property via Paloma Road.
“Five minutes doesn’t sound like much, but in a situation like that, five minutes made the world,” Schabram said.
The Schabrams consider themselves lucky. Only 10 acres burned, and the monetary impact of the fire is manageable. But after 12 years of living next to what they see as a hazard, they are no longer waiting for the county to handle the issue.
“I’m rattled,” said Schabram. “I’m a rancher and I’m not easily rattled, but fire is something where you are so helpless. You see all of your life’s work go up in flames.”
“If that would have been a windy day, that could have ended in a catastrophe,” said Schabram. “I consider that neglect.”
Schabram is reluctant to sue the county; instead, at a recent meeting of the Board of Supervisors, said she would rather work with the county to get the issue resolved. She has not contacted legal representation, but says she plans to.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Schabram sued the county in 2013 in small claims court for damages caused by the road. According to Schabram, sharp and jagged rocks, referred to as “shot rocks,” were used as an emergency fix for the road. As she exited her property, the rocks repeatedly carved into her vehicle and damaged her tires. She won the case.
She feels that her previous lawsuit gives credence to her newest issue.
“The monetary loss we suffered this time is manageable, but I cannot live in this situation anymore,” she said. “It scares the heck out of me.”
August 31, 2017
Calaveras Enterprise
By Sean P. Thomas