Water board waives fire rules in disasters
A rarity occurred at the Ramona Municipal Water District Board meeting last week. Customers applauded.
District directors unanimously approved a recommendation from board president Robert Krysak to exempt victims of natural disasters from fire code rules the district controls, under specific conditions.
The board directed legal counsel to prepare an amendment to the fire code for review at its meeting on Oct. 28.
The change primarily affects road access and road turnaround area, not state and county fire regulations, and is expected to help victims of last October’s Witch Fire.
In Ramona, 501 homes were reported destroyed in the Witch Fire that started Oct. 21, 2007. About 75 square miles of Ramona’s estimated 130 square miles is in the water district. Ramona Fire Department is among the water district’s responsibilities.
Most of homes destroyed last year have not been rebuilt. Many homeowners were underinsured and “can barely build their residence, let alone accomplish the requirements that are being placed upon them by the county, the state and fire department,” said Krysak.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob in August met with fire victims at the Ramona Fire Recovery Center. After hearing stories of problems they were having with the water district, fire department and county, Jacob scheduled a meeting for fire victims to talk with water district, fire and county officials.
Krysak, Cal Fire/Ramona Fire Marshal Calvin McVay and Cal Fire/North County Division Chief Kevin O’Leary attended the Sept. 29 meeting in Jacob’s office.
“What came from that meeting was a clear understanding of the difficulty that the fire victims are having rebuilding their homes due to the stringent requirements at both the county level, the state level and at our local fire department level,” said Krysak.
Fire victims said their houses were not up to code before the fire, and neighbors’ homes that did not burn do not meet current code.
“Fire victims believe that their victimization due to natural disaster places them in a category separate and distinct from those seeking to build new houses where no houses existed before,” Krysak wrote in a report to the board. “Many of these victims have been residents of Ramona for decades, and their argument is that placing their residence in the same condition as prior to the fire would not detrimentally impact neighbors in that most neighbors who survived the fire are not up to present code either.”
As fire marshal, McVay “has done exactly what this board told him to do. He was enforcing our fire code that we passed,” said Krysak.
Fire victims said they did not know they could have appealed the fire marshal’s rulings to the water board.
“You always have the option to come to this board if you and the fire department reach a disagreement,” said Krysak.
Krysak initially recommended the exemption for rebuilds that are smaller than or the same footprint as the residence destroyed. O’Leary recommended adding 300 square feet to the footprint, saying that is allowed in the fire code, and the board agreed.
Later in the meeting, a Ramona resident not in the district said the county “is allowing homeowners to rebuild up to 500 square foot larger than the original footprint without any extra permit cost.”
A concern is “we start hearing all kinds of variations,” said Krysak.
“I wouldn’t want people to use this as an opportunity to build a McMansion on their property and waive all the requirements of the fire code,” he said.
Fire victim Michael McKinney, whose home about eight miles east of town was outside the district, suggested the board also consider changing the building footprint as long as the square footage stays the same.
“I plan on building the same size house, but not three stories,” he said. “… I’ve got arthritis in my knees now.”
People receiving exemptions will have to sign a waiver showing they are aware of the fire code requirements, said Krysak.
“I don’t want the homeowners to come back five years from now and say, ‘if you had made me comply with the fire code five years ago, a fire engine could have come up my driveway and saved my house,” he said.
Bonnie Fry of the Ramona Fire Recovery Center said people have received bids of as much as $47,000 to pave and widen roads to meet the district’s fire requirements.
The water board action will not affect county and state mandates for water tanks, sprinkler systems and building materials, she said.
“Dianne Jacob said she was going to be looking at that, about waiving sprinkler requirements, waiving water tank requirements on a county level,” said Krysak.
O’Leary, who supported the exemptions, said after the meeting, “Without Director Krysak doing that, this would not have been possible….They (fire victims) need the help.”
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