PLACER COUNTY — Placer County has started the process of replacing a historic bridge over the North Fork of the American River.
The price tag to replace the bridge on Yankee Jims Road could be as much as $23 million, even though it gets relatively little use.
The cable suspension bridge is nearing 90 years old. Its corrugated steel roadway can only carry vehicles over 3 tons and it can fit just one car at a time.
“It was pretty shaky but we got through. One of our friends is a little big, so he made the bridge shake a little bit,” said Uri Ramirez, who is from San Jose and drove over the bridge for the first time.
Ramirez wasn’t exaggerating. The roadway sways on its cables when people walk across, let alone drive a car.
Still, it has been deemed safe, so why replace it?
In 2012, the Robbers Fire engulfed the surrounding canyon, causing evacuations. Fire crews were stopped cold when their equipment couldn’t cross the North Fork of the American River at the bridge.
“Immediate emergency response personnel couldn’t cross the bridge and actually delayed the response for initial attack on that fire,” said Placer County Senior Engineer Kevin Ordway.
It burned for the better part of two weeks after getting a head start.
A new, two-lane bridge would allow emergency vehicles access to both sides of the river. In addition, a secondary evacuation route is needed from the Forest Hill area if there is another wildfire.
“That is one of the egress routes that they have available to them,” Ordway explained.
Even with a new bridge, the Yankee Jims Bridge won’t be torn down. It’s part of a historic gold rush route through the canyon and parks officials want to use it for hikers, bikers and horse riders.
An evaluation of its safety for recreationists will determine if that will happen.
The completion of the bridge’s replacement will require federal money, so it will still be years away. In the meantime, this will operate as it has always done since 1930.
The construction of a replacement bridge is all the more important because Gov. Gavin Newsom has a renewed focus on evacuation routes in the event of a wildland fire in vulnerable communities.