County must prioritize evacuation routes

The CN&R got a tour this week of Centerville Road, which winds up from the Honey Run Covered Bridge site all the way into Magalia. Many residents who couldn’t reach the Skyway to escape the Camp Fire last November used that road to seek safety. Thing is, it already was breached at that time, reduced to one lane along a portion of its southern stretch after a tree toppled over in January 2017.

Now, after heavy debris flows washed it out above the community of Centerville during a storm this past winter, it’s impassable. Residents living in Helltown, Nimshew and neighboring communities have no way to get out going south. Those in Centerville and Butte Creek Canyon can’t go north—Centerville Road is the only designated evacuation route identified by Butte County. For those who live between the breaches, well, they’re in for a bottleneck.

Fire season is upon us. And all evacuation routes, especially for our foothills communities, should have been addressed by now. Cleaning up properties and cutting down trees that could serve as fuel are important measures to take, yes. But as Laura George, a concerned Butte Creek Canyon resident, told the CN&R this week (see “No way out,” page 8): “Fire prevention doesn’t mean a wit if the road is closed.”

The county says it’s dragging its feet because of property rights—it doesn’t own the land adjacent to the road; it only owns the road. It also cites bureaucracy on the part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which says it’ll foot the bill. Neither answer is good enough. Eminent domain is a tricky, time-consuming process, but if Butte County had gone that route immediately following the 2017 storm, that portion of Centerville Road might have been fixed by now. The property owners, too, should recognize the safety of their neighbors—it’s time to stop haggling.

Stories of people abandoning their vehicles while evacuating during the Camp Fire and running through flames are vivid in our memories. Some even died in their cars trying to escape. When it comes to ensuring a route to safety, there’s simply no time to waste.