|Posted on March 2, 2022|
|Council hears about Caltrans plans to maintain Highway 24 Corridor|
|By Sora O’Doherty|
|Photo Sora O’Doherty|
Once again, Orinda is considering a balance, this time between fire safety and maintaining the scenic highway designation for Highway 24. Shawn Casteel, Caltrans agricultural biologist and acting senior environmental planner, presented an update. update to Orinda City Council on fuel mitigation work in the Orinda Corridor on February 15. He explained Caltrans’ broader approach to vegetation management and answered questions posed by the board.
Casteel said a new part of their program is an annual workshop for Caltrans to get feedback from fire departments. In a public comment, Charles Porges asked if the workshop was open to the public. Casteel came back to town after the meeting and confirmed that the workshop was in fact not open to the public.
Another new element of Caltrans’ maintenance plan is fuel reduction service contracts for work outside of traditional on-board treatments. Normally, Caltrans would maintain 8 feet from the edge of the highway, but starting this year, Caltrans will hire contractors to provide fuel reduction work beyond what Caltrans would normally perform. These additional areas have been identified, Casteel said, by local fire districts. In response to questions from Lamorinda Weekly after the meeting, Moraga-Orinda Fire District Chief Dave Winnacker said that for years Caltrans had been spraying pre-emergence chemicals along the road to reduce the growth of annual grasses and weeds. MOFD advocated switching from this spraying to mowing grass, hand thinning overgrown brush, limbing healthy trees to maintain at least 6 feet of clearance above ground, and removal of dead trees. “While more is always better from a fire safety perspective, our advocacy has been limited to vegetation within 10 feet of the roadway, as it is covered by the existing Caltrans EIR from 1992 and the area where 74% of fires start (according to Caltrans data),” Winnacker said.
During the council meeting, the question was raised whether Highway 24 was protected from billboards by its status as a scenic highway. The answer was that while this is true as long as a highway is considered scenic, changes in the highway’s environment could jeopardize its scenic status, and in that case billboards would become a possibility. along the side of the road.
Casteel presented the Caltrans workflow. Beginning with a workshop on March 2, the annual vegetation control plan will be due on April 1. Annual tree inspections will follow in mid-June. Casteel compared the project to running a very large farm. Caltrans is responsible for over 40,000 acres. The portion of Highway 24 that passes through Orinda is about four miles long.
Vice Mayor Inga Miller and Council Member Amy Worth both spoke about the importance to the City of Orinda of maintaining scenic highway status for Highway 24 (as well as Highway 13, which no was not under discussion). Miller said she “wants to make sure we are aware of anything that threatens the scenic freeway rating of Highway 24 and that we take steps to keep our visual corridor free of billboards.” Worth asked about the status of the oaks, to which Casteel replied that the oaks are a valuable tree to Caltrans and he wants to preserve them.
Worth agreed that oaks resist fires very well, unlike non-native trees. She asked if the scenic highway designation excluded billboards. This question was taken up by Sheryl Sablan, manager of Caltrans’ environmental maintenance office, who explained that it was about maintaining the scenic character of the highway. “If we cut it blank, it would take us out of the scenic highway designation,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t want to do this.”
Board member Darlene Gee wondered about longer-term vegetation replacement in addition to fuel reduction and maintenance, but was referred to Caltrans’s landscape architecture department for such requests.
Orinda Mayor Dennis Fay recognizes the importance of using Highway 24 as a firebreak. “It would be nice to know when you’re going to do it, the time frame, what types of trees will be removed,” he said, adding, “essentially, what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.” Casteel replied that after the preparation of a fuel reduction action plan by the contractor, a detailed list of the work to be carried out will be available. Caltrans is currently working on the contractor selection process.
Chief Winnacker, in comments after the meeting, noted that “The California Streets and Highways Code does not appear to address the removal of ground fuels and dead trees as grounds for revoking the Scenic Highway designation. This has already been stated by Caltrans representatives, in particular that the scope of the work they are undertaking would not warrant a review of the inclusion of Highway 24 in Section 263.3 of the Highway Code.”