By Craig S. Harrison
One of the issues Bennett Valley residents raised at the First Responders Town Hall on May 25th was the wisdom and legality of Sonoma County Regional Parks Department’s proposal to turn North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park into a mini-resort with campgrounds, bunkhouses, campfires, and cooking in remote areas that are inaccessible for fire crews.
The BVCA followed up soon after the Town Hall with a letter to Ben Nicholls, CAL FIRE Division Chief for Sonoma County. You can read the letter here. The BVCA noted that Sonoma Mountain often experiences high diablo winds and CAL FIRE classifies the mountain as a very high fire hazard severity Zone. It barely escaped conflagration during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. The BVCA wrote that overnight stays are dangerous to campers, residents of Bennett Valley and surrounding communities, and that campfires and cooking cannot reasonably be controlled by parks staff who work day jobs.
The BVCA noted that CAL FIRE has the authority to inspect and enforce the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations for Sonoma County, and that the access to the park does not come close to meeting those minimum standards.
The sole access road into the park from Sonoma Mountain Road is posted “one way.” The dead-end road crosses a narrow bridge and extends about three-quarters of a mile to the parking lot. Parts of the one-way access road are only 10 feet wide, with minimal shoulders, and no part of the access road seems wider than 12 feet. If a fire occurred, the ability to evacuate campers is extremely limited and could result in a deadly bottleneck on the access road.
The State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations require that any new development provide for safe access for emergency wildfire equipment and civilian evacuation concurrently, and provide unobstructed traffic circulation during a Wildfire emergency. A 10-12-foot-wide access road cannot possibly meet these standards because fire engines are 9 feet wide (excluding mirrors) and passenger vehicles are typically 6 feet wide. The regulations require a minimum road width of 20 feet.
The BVCA asked CAL FIRE to communicate in writing to the Sonoma County Fire Marshal that the access to this development does not meet the standards in the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations. Chief Nichols responded that he has contacted the Parks Department and learned that the Master Plan is still being developed. He will be included in conversations as the process moves forward. The BVCA hopes that CAL FIRE’s oversight will ensure that the regulations are implemented properly and that no overnight camping is allowed.