Tahoe Fire Shows Need for Better Land Planning, Fire Chief Says

July 20, 2007

The wind-driven inferno that swept through a South Lake Tahoe subdivision last month and destroyed more than 250 homes is evidence that state fire officials must become more involved in local planning decisions, California’s top fire official said.

As more and more homes are built in or near forests, the danger from fires and the cost of fighting them increases, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Such concerns too often are mere afterthoughts when local governments decide where housing developments should be located and how they should be protected, Grijalva said during a legislative hearing about the state’s disaster preparations.

The department will start moving beyond its traditional firefighting role to work more closely with local communities on how to prevent destructive wildfires, he said.

“We as a state agency need to refocus ourselves on preparedness, prevention and land-use planning,” Grijalva told the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security. “We cannot continue to do things in the same way and expect a different outcome.”

Last month’s Angora fire on a ridge above South Lake Tahoe started from an illegal campfire and spread quickly through a heavily wooded subdivision, burning 254 homes and causing more than $140 million in property damage.

Local planning agencies said they expect to permit thousands of new homes in the coming years in the Tahoe Basin, which is ringed by a forest many consider too dense and ripe for even more disastrous wildfires.

Development in fire-prone areas has been a source of conflict for years in California and is sure to grow as home builders push subdivisions ever farther from city centers, said Thomas Scott, a natural resources specialist with the University of California, Riverside.

“This problem is getting worse and worse by the moment,” he told the legislative committee.

Last year, the state required rural residents to clear flammable materials from within 100 feet of their homes, up from the previous 30-foot requirement. Next year, new regulations will require burn-resistant materials to be used on homes built in areas with a high fire danger.

The state also has updated its fire hazard maps, a step that should help local officials decide where to permit homes and how to protect them once they are built, Grijalva said.

“We’re trying to get into the land-use planning process,” Grijalva told reporters outside the hearing. “Once the hazard areas have been identified, how do they mitigate the risk?”

State Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who chairs the joint legislative committee, said permitting homeowners to build in forested areas is similar to allowing developments in flood plains.

“You have local decisions putting people in harm’s way with the expectation that if they get in trouble, the state will pay for it,” the Santa Barbara Democrat said.

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