Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bi-state panel to deal with Tahoe fire fuels

Angora Fire: Bi-state panel to draft Tahoe fire rules
The Sacramento Bee, Calif. (July 25, 2007)

Jul. 25--The governors of California and Nevada today will announce the creation of a commission that will propose new rules to avoid disasters like the Angora blaze, the largest wildfire to strike the region in modern times.

The Angora fire burned 254 homes and 3,100 acres in South Lake Tahoe last month. The committee plan emerges just as preliminary studies are suggesting that forest-thinning projects helped slow the burn, but may not have preserved homes -- especially those without fire breaks or fire-resistant materials.

The new California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission will be charged with examining forest and fire policy in the region and making recommendations by March 21. Its 23 members will be appointed equally by the governors, with one person chosen by the federal government.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to announce the new commission at a South Lake Tahoe ceremony today.

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Kathay Lovell is hopeful the commission will create real solutions, not another dust-catcher report.

"I think when you've got two governors side-by-side in this commitment, you are going to see some action," she said. "Certainly those of us at the local level are going to be watching and waiting to see action. People don't want to see the talk, they want to see the walk."

One of the biggest controversies facing the commission will be identifying strategies to protect rural property.

According to two preliminary studies on the Angora fire, years of effort to thin overgrown forest on public land around the affected neighborhoods helped reduce the fire's intensity. But many homes still burned because they were not protected from flying embers that rained down ahead of the main fire front.

"A fuel treatment does not stop a fire. It's meant to slow a fire so we can safely get people in to control it," said Hugh Safford, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and author of one report.

"Those homes burned because embers landed on shake roofs, or on decks, or a woodpile right next to the house," he said. "These homes caught on fire and they nuked the forest around them ... then spread embers to torch the home next to them."

Early findings suggest some neighborhoods could have been saved by a broader adoption of defensible space principles and fire-resistant construction methods.

"In no cases were there burning tree canopies igniting homes without other homes being part of that heat output," said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a nonprofit representing fire professionals that released its own report last week.

Safford's work will be part of a larger, pending assessment of the fire.

By creating larger spaces between mature trees and removing small trees and underbrush, Safford said, fuel-reduction projects forced the fire to drop out of the tree canopy onto the ground as it approached homes near North Upper Truckee Road.

In a section of the Angora burn area that had not been thinned, he found 100 percent of tree crowns burned. In an adjoining area thinned in 2005, only 11 percent of the canopy burned.

Similarly, throughout the burn area, an estimated 71 percent of trees were killed by the fire. But in burned areas previously thinned, 21 percent of trees were killed.

"There's no question that you saved dozens, if not hundreds of homes, because of that," said Safford.

That contention, however, was disputed by Ingalsbee. He said it appears likely the initial run of the fire overwhelmed defensive measures created by forest-thinning projects as the fire approached Lake Tahoe Boulevard. Here, the fire was driven by 30-mph winds directly through a "stream environment zone," where logging was restricted to protect water quality.

The fire also encountered a 60-acre forest-thinning project near Mule Deer Circle. Though completed in 2004, the area was still filled with brush piles left behind from that work.

"It looks like one part of the fuels treatment area helped firefighters prevent the fire from spreading into the community," Ingalsbee said. "But along the rest of the fuels treatment area, it clearly did not."

According to Safford, some neighborhoods burned by the fire had a tree canopy almost twice as thick as the surrounding forest.

Barry Callenberger, a retired Forest Service fuels specialist who lives in Placerville, said this is a common problem throughout the Sierra Nevada.

"People have a tendency -- in the Tahoe basin in particular -- to think that it's not going to happen to them," Callenberger said.

A California law requires property owners to clear a defensible space zone 30 feet around rural homes, removing dead vegetation and other flammable materials. It also requires trees and shrubs to be thinned out to 100 feet, or to the property line.

Homeowners can be cited and fined for failing to comply. But enforcement is spotty at best, according to fire professionals, because there isn't enough money and personnel for inspections.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which now goes by Cal Fire, enforces the law in many parts of the state. But at Lake Tahoe, it leaves enforcement to local fire agencies, which press for voluntary compliance. This includes the Lake Valley Fire Protection District, which covers the area burned in the Angora Fire.

Bill Holmes, chief of Cal Fire's Amador-El Dorado Unit, could not recall a single citation issued by any Tahoe fire agency for failure to comply with the defensible-space law.

"The law is like any law: It's there to enforce if you have the people and resources to do it," said Holmes.

Scott Cecchi was one of the lucky ones in the Angora fire: His home on Boulder Mountain Drive survived the blaze, even though it had a wood-shingle roof. He had cleared a large defensible-space perimeter around his home by thinning trees and brush and building a rock patio in the backyard rather than a wood deck.

He knows flying embers landed on his roof, because he was up there positioning sprinklers before he evacuated.

Cecchi said he favors incentive programs, rather than fines, to improve fire safety. For instance, he wants to replace his shingle roof but can't afford it.

"Defensible space is not a guarantee. You're trying to increase your odds," he said. "That, combined with some luck, and we survived."

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