Thursday, July 26, 2007

TRPA discusses wildfire

Posted: 7/26/2007

STATELINE -- Regulatory changes must be made soon if Lake Tahoe is to escape another disastrous wildfire, land-use regulators agreed Wednesday.

A month after the Angora Fire swept through 3,100 acres in the South Lake Tahoe area, destroying 254 homes, governors of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency met with landowners, forestry experts and fire officials as efforts accelerate to protect a national landmark from future blazes.

There's no time to lose, TRPA officials were told.

"We need to get this done. We need to get this done now," impassioned South Lake Tahoe resident Jim Weinberg told the governing board.

"Nothing matters now but reducing the threat of fire," Weinberg said. "Your goal is to preserve the lake. If you cannot reduce the threat of fire, you have failed."

Much of Wednesday's discussion centered around forest thinning regulations affecting stream areas, where logging was restricted to protect water quality. The Angora Fire burned most explosively as it rocketed through Angora Creek but calmed significantly when it entered parts of the forest thinned in recent years, officials said.

In 2004, when TRPA made avoiding catastrophic fire its top priority, the agency also relaxed regulations to allow use of mechanical equipment to thin trees in so-called "stream environment zones."

Despite that action, no significant mechanical thinning projects have occurred in Tahoe's stream areas. The Forest Service plans to start in the fall a demonstration project on 23 acres of South Tahoe's Heavenly Valley Creek.

"We've got the stream zones out of the closet," said Coe Swobe, Nevada's at-large appointee to TRPA. "I think we should stop treating stream zones as sacred cows."

Swobe said the issue of preventing fires in Tahoe should be a primary matter addressed during the annual Lake Tahoe Summit on Aug. 17, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top federal officials will discuss progress made in protecting the lake. Former Vice President Al Gore will be keynote speaker.

El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago, who represents the area burned, said the agency can't afford to wait for next spring's recommendations by a task force on Tahoe fire danger formed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons.

"Folks, the danger is now. We can't wait for the commission," Santiago said. "I think we all agree there's a mess out there we have to clean up."

"We're at the beginning of fire season here," agreed Placer County Supervisor Bruce Krantz. "I want to see what we can do immediately."

No action was taken Wednesday but TRPA officials agreed to consider a variety of steps soon. Placer County officials may require homeowners to establish defensible space around houses or face liens on their property.

Terri Marceron, supervisor of the Forest Service's Tahoe unit, said the government is committed to thinning Tahoe's fire-prone forests but such projects take time.

Since 2004, the Forest Service has secured $22 million from federal land sales near Las Vegas for that purpose and has spent $9 million, Marceron said. Within the next three months, she expects to commit another $3.8 million for nine major projects to thin 2,400 acres around the Tahoe Basin.

"We're spending the money as quick as we get it, but it's a process," Marceron said.

She said more than 600 acres thinned in the area caused the Angora Fire raging through treetops to drop to the ground as intended.

"In the areas we treated fuels, those were the places they were able to protect homes," Marceron said.

John Pickett, California coordinator for the Nevada Fire Safe Council, said planned thinning activity must occur, with overgrown stream areas posing a "particular hazard."

"When we get through with a thinning project it's going to look like hell for a couple of years," he said. "When we get through with a fire like this, it will look like hell for 100 years."

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