California Tahoe Fire Commission Wants Federal Aid

March 24, 2008

A commission created after a Lake Tahoe blaze destroyed more than 250 California homes voted unanimously to seek state and federal emergency declarations to combat what it says is an imminent threat of catastrophic wildfire.

Declarations by President Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons would provide immediate cash and jump-start fire-prevention programs. A commission report said thinning overgrown forests around communities should be completed within five years and within a decade throughout the entire Tahoe basin, which straddles the two states.

The panel is considering dozens of recommendations to be forwarded to the governors, who established the commission after last year’s fire. In June the blaze swept down a thickly forested canyon in South Lake Tahoe and caused $140 million in property damage.

The fire exposed long-standing rivalries between the local, state, federal and regional agencies that are charged with protecting Tahoe’s environment or promoting fire protection.

An Associated Press report last week exposed numerous examples of bureaucratic backbiting that delayed tree clearing throughout the basin, sometimes for years. More than 4,000 pages of internal documents from myriad agencies illustrated a regional planning and fire-prevention process that had degenerated into dysfunction.

The commission issued a report focusing on two agencies at the core of the criticism: the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and California’s Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Both agencies traditionally have made fire protection secondary to environmental protection, in particular trying to maintain the lake’s renowned clarity.

Strict environmental regulations designed to protect the lake have led to forests jam-packed with spindly, unhealthy trees that can ignite quickly.

The tree density found throughout much of the Tahoe basin can lead to highly destructive crown fires, in which flames reach the tops of trees. A forest filled with older, more mature trees that are spread out is better able to withstand wildfire.

The report said the agencies now must recognize that in just a matter of days a wildfire can undo years of environmental progress, sending black ash and barren soil streaming into the lake.

“There is perhaps no single … event with greater potential deleterious impact on the lake than a catastrophic wildfire,” the report says in the first of its official findings.

It recommends the Lahontan water board and the regional planning agency update their policies to emphasize tree clearing, “with the priority given to protection of life, property and the environment, in that order.”

The commission’s report says the various agencies must set aside their often conflicting goals and begin cooperating. Among the key findings:

– The process to obtain tree-cutting permits must be streamlined.

– Expensive improvements must be undertaken. For example, the commission recommends increasing the capacity of the basin’s water systems to better fight fires. Such projects would cost more than $100 million and likely take 20 years, according to the report.

– Homeowners should be required to replace flammable wooden or shake-shingle roofs. On Friday, the commission said this should be done within 10 years.

– Local governments should consider taxing property owners in the basin to pay for fire-prevention programs.

Documents obtained by the AP through state and federal freedom of information requests reflect a philosophical divide with the regional planning agency and the Lahontan water board are on one side, and the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local fire districts on the other.

“Following the fire, we have really redoubled efforts to work side by side with the fire agencies,” said Julie Regan, spokeswoman for Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “The community does expect us to work together. We certainly heard that loudly and clearly.”

The agency includes members from California and Nevada and receives funding from both states. Its regulations affect all the agencies, organizations and private landowners in the Tahoe basin.

The commission’s report recommends that lawmakers in California and Nevada use their control of the agency’s budget to make sure it follows the recommendations.

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