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County hears update on Jarbidge case

followed by: Closure of escape route worries forest residents


ELKO - Elko County Commissioners heard an update Thursday on the July 31 proceedings in federal court during which U.S. Magistrate Robert McQuaid Jr. threw out a $150 U.S. Forest Service fine against John Eickhof.

McQuaid, ruling from U.S. District Court in Reno, found there was insufficient evidence that Eickhof, of Wendell, Idaho, had caused any environmental damage to the banks of the Jarbidge River when he drove his 1952 Dodge 4x4 Power Wagon through the river channel in June 2003.

Local attorney Grant Gerber, who defended Eickhof pro bono, told the county board that, "We went. We won."

Gerber said the court's decision was important to the future of South Canyon Road and to the rights of citizens to use the road.

"I am convinced that they (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) were going to use this under punitive damages as an opportunity to close the road," he told the board.

Gerber said Eickhof was targeted because he lived in Idaho.

"I am absolutely convinced that they didn't cite anybody in Jarbidge or Elko County but the cited somebody outside the area, over 500 miles away from the court, expecting that he would send in his $150," Gerber said.

Gerber, who said he had never defended a criminal case before, said he was told by criminal attorneys the federal government had to prove South Canyon Road was not a road and that they had to prove there was damage or unreasonable disturbance.

"They never proved it wasn't a road ... they never proved there was any damage," he said.

He said the U.S. attorney wanted to drop the case but that U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service wanted to go forward with a trial.

"We asked for the discovery report, and that is when I decided they were really serious about this," Gerber said. "It is 124 pages. They have to, by the time is was over, have spent tens of thousands of dollars on this $150 fine."

Gerber said it's not often that someone wins a case against the federal government.

"Attorneys that I know said that is unusual," he said.

Closure of escape route worries forest residents
July 30, 2004
By George Watson, staff writer 
San Bernardino County Sun
399 North D Street
San Bernardino, California 92401
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@sbsun.com or carolyn.schatz@sbsun.com
Forest Service mouthpiece: "It's also not a particularly safe evacuation route because of the standing danger of dead trees." Uh, DUH! Let the timber harvesters in and take care of that problem, oh FS employee of definitely 'finite' wisdom!
Cedarpines Park resident Joe DeLuca, 25, points out on Monday where fires burned near Burnt Mill Canyon Road in October. The U.S. Forest Service closed the partially burned road that has been used as an evacuation route. - Photo by LaFonzo Rachal Carter
Cedarpines Park, California - Over the past 24 years, the DeLuca family has twice escaped wildfires by driving a short but jaw-rattling dirt road that slices through the San Bernardino National Forest.

Earlier this summer, though, U.S. Forest Service employees barricaded the 3.5-mile road that many of the DeLucas' neighbors also have used to slip away to safety.

The path travels off a single-lane route, Burnt Mill Canyon Road, down to Highway 138 near Silverwood Lake.

The blockade leaves residents with a roundabout route to Highway 138, which is their normal, albeit slower, way off the San Bernardino Mountains.

Given the worst-case scenario, some residents fear a quick-moving wildfire could trap them.

"People are so upset, they tried to rip the gate down,' said Joe DeLuca, 25, whose family moved to the community shortly before the 1980 Panorama Fire. "People aren't happy because this [CLOSED ROAD, CLOSED AND LOCKED BY THE FOREST SERVICE] is the quickest, most sensible way out.'

The Forest Service shut down the road because 'the surrounding forest needs to rehabilitate itself', said Ruth Wenstrom, spokeswoman for the agency.

Last fall's Old Fire burned into the area, forming the western border of the worst wildfire in the mountains' recorded history.

"It's also not a particularly safe evacuation route because of the standing danger of dead trees,' Wenstrom said. "People could get trapped and we'd have to go in and save them.'

County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said officials prefer that mountain dwellers use paved roads included as part of the evacuation plan. It's also why they have arranged an extensive evacuation plan that is triggered at the beginning of a potentially threatening fire, he said. If residents have to evacuate because a fire is so close, it probably means they waited too long to leave, he said.

Nearly as troubling to DeLuca is the determination by officials not to release a map book specifically detailing fire hazards.

The book breaks down each of the mountain communities by streets, determining high hazard areas.

Labeled "classified,' the book is given to firefighters from outside the area who are unfamiliar with the terrain and, more importantly, the web of twisting roads that weave through the woods.

A friend who is a firefighter told DeLuca that the community is considered by the Forest Service as "a blackout' area. That meant it was too dangerous for firefighters to enter during a wildfire, DeLuca said he was told. The firefighter declined to be interviewed because he feared for his job, DeLuca said.

County Fire Chief Peter Hills did not return a call for comment Friday.

Fire officials refuse to release the map book because they say an arsonist could determine the best locations for igniting fires. They have said the book does not prevent firefighters from entering any areas that are burning.

At the same time, the officials acknowledge that concerns about how the maps might affect property values or insurance rates play a role, too.

Neither are acceptable answers, DeLuca said.

Residents deserve to know how dangerous the Forest Service has rated neighborhoods, he said.

"It's public information, ' DeLuca said. "They won't give it to us, which in my opinion is completely illegal.'

Others have made similar arguments.

Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9-11 commission, was contacted by The Sun and informed of the circumstances.

Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said the document should be made public, just as he has argued while serving on the commission. Concerns about terrorists or, in this region's case, arsonists should not allow infrastructure documents to be hidden away.

Any infrastructure information that would enable people to understand the dangers around them, and then ask tough questions politicians might not want to hear, is a public document in Kerrey's mind.

DeLuca agreed.

"If they put it out there, more people would be aware. They would watch more in dangerous areas,' he said. "People would want to know where to watch.'

DeLuca is also confused about the gating system deployed by the Forest Service. The first gate encountered on the way to Highway 138 is shut with a lock and chain hanging around one end. But it's not wrapped around a second pole, meaning it swings open easily.

The second gate, found just before the highway, is firmly locked with an even stronger chain. Someone has tried to pull it down with a truck. It also appears to have been rammed at least once.

"If you got down here, you'd be stuck,' said DeLuca, just steps away from his extended-cab, diesel pickup. "There's nowhere to turn around. It could be a death trap.'

Truth be told, a person could abandon his or her vehicle and walk along the road. But then they would be stuck on foot.

Across the mountains, some residents have expressed opposition to calls for a mandatory evacuation, which authorities could require in a wildfire. Some people say they won't leave, a continuing development that confounds authorities who might then have to try and save them instead of fighting a blaze.

DeLuca doesn't mind evacuating. He understands the might of a wildfire. But he cannot understand why previously used escape routes have been taken away.

"If you are going to mandate us to evacuate from the mountain, why won't you open the road?' DeLuca said.

In trying to find a solution, DeLuca has dealt with the maze of agencies responsible for the mountains. One official told him the issue came down to the cost of maintaining the road.

After speaking with a mountain resident whose property has a similarly sized dirt road that he maintains for about $10,000, DeLuca did some quick calculations.

"Doing the math, they are valuing our lives somewhere around $12 per person,' he said.




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