No way out

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Laura George started a petition to urge the county to fix Centerville Road, which is one lane in one portion and completely washed out in another.

When the Camp Fire hit and Magalia residents were told to evacuate their homes, they quickly weighed their options. Those close to the Skyway took that route—north or south. But others, on the western edge, chose Centerville Road, which leads down through Butte Creek Canyon. For many, it was the only option.

Earlier this year, during a heavy storm, that road washed out just above Centerville. That leaves residents to the north without a way south and those in the canyon without a way north. With fire season here, residents have begun to worry. One of them, Laura George, took it upon herself to start a petition. It had gotten almost 250 signatures when she submitted it to the Butte County Board of Supervisors last week (July 23).

“We are almost 1.5 miles from where Centerville and Nimshew [roads] meet. To get to Skyway and off the Ridge was impossible in November. This route saved three generations of my family,” Heather Walker, a resident of Nimshew, submitted with her online signature.

Compounding the issue is another breach, not far past the turnoff from Honey Run Road. That happened 2 1/2 years ago and has yet to be fixed—the road is one lane, with a temporary signal at both ends.

“We can’t predict where a fire or flood is going to happen,” George said while giving the CN&R a tour of the road. “You’d think after the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, there’d be some priority of evacuation routes. There’s an urgency ordinance for log decks—what about an urgency ordinance for this?”

The road already is a bit treacherous, as it’s situated along a cliff side with no guardrails. Potholes and sinkholes are prevalent and have only gotten worse since the fire, George said—the debris-removal trucks are wreaking havoc. Beyond being listed as an official evacuation route for area residents, it’s a one-lane nightmare waiting to happen, she charges. When there’s not an evacuation, it’s tough enough to get through—what’s worse, ambulances take longer to reach people in medical emergencies.

“There are two failures on Centerville Road,” acknowledged Dennis Schmidt, director of public works for the county. The first occurred in January 2017. A large tree rooted into the cliff toppled over, taking large chunks of the road with it. To deal with the situation, the county blocked off that part of the road for safety. Then it brought in a pair of mobile signals and placed them at either end of the breach, which is large enough that you cannot see one signal from the other. Then traffic is allowed to go one way at a time.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will pay for repairs (to the tune of $2.5 million), as the storms that January were deemed an emergency, Schmidt said, but plans for fixing the road have stalled due to ownership issues. The county owns the road, but not the land adjacent to it. The first option was to “riprap” the cliff—basically add rock to rebuild that portion of the road. That was met with opposition from the community, which expressed environmental concerns, Schmidt said.

Then it was on to plan B—cut into the cliff on the other side, which looms above the road. Problem is, someone owns that property. They’ve been resistant, Schmidt said.

“There are 15 people on the title,” he said, “and they have four different legal counsels.”

He said he believes progress is being made. Last week the county submitted a new proposal and he’s hopeful the property owners will be cooperative. The Board of Supervisors likely will be presented with news at its Aug. 13 meeting—Schmidt will be asking either to move forward with hiring a contractor or to resort to seeking eminent domain. The latter could mean a long, arduous court process, he said.

The second failure, Schmidt said, occurred when debris flow coming off the Ridge washed out a portion of the road, which is gravel in that section. Photographs show a clearance of less than one lane; a truck that failed to maneuver it is still stuck in the ditch below. During the tour with George, not far beyond the Centerville School House and just past a residence, a sign warns that the road is closed ahead.

Schmidt is hoping for a speedier process to fix that portion. The bid process already is underway. Estimated cost is $400,000. And with just one property owner to contend with, Schmidt said the county is “charging forward” with those repairs. It won’t even wait for FEMA to approve the price tag, he said, but will ask for repayment afterward. He said that project likely will take 70 to 80 days to complete.

“We’re right up against that weather window. We really can’t wait much longer,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get them both approved at the Aug. 13 meeting.”

That, of course, would make George and her neighbors happy. But she says she’s seen it all before—construction on the lower breach was supposed to begin in the spring, then it was summer, now it’s fall. Instead, it appears priority has been given to debris removal and taking out trees.

“Fire prevention doesn’t mean a wit if the road is closed,” she said.