Thursday, August 23, 2007

TRPA forms wildfire panel

Posted: 8/23/2007

Four days after five more Lake Tahoe homes were destroyed by wildfire, land-use regulators scrambled Wednesday to begin making changes to ease regulations that some critics insist stand in the way of preventing fires at the lake.

Governors of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency established a committee to begin an urgent review of agency regulations related to the removal or thinning of trees and brush, with an emphasis on overgrown stream areas.

The aim is to work toward needed change ahead of a committee formed by Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after the disastrous Angora Fire that destroyed 254 homes in one June day near South Lake Tahoe. By March, that panel must recommend policy changes to make Tahoe safer from fire.

The issue was given extra urgency Saturday, when another fire erupted in a wooded Tahoe neighborhood at Sunnyside, burning another five homes on Tahoe's western shore. A wildfire consumed 100 acres near Donner Lake after the board met Wednesday.

"We lost five homes. It could have been many, many more," said Bruce Kranz, Placer County member of the TRPA board and the representative of the fire area.

Kranz implored board members to aggressively pursue changes to make fire protection projects easier than regulations currently allow.

"All I'm saying is we better get our act together," Kranz said. "This is urgent. We need to move with it now."

Kranz submitted a letter to TRPA Executive Director John Singlaub recommending "immediate action" in several areas:

Authorize the use of environmentally sensitive mechanical equipment to clean out thick growth in so-called "stream environment zones," which Kranz said "serve as wicks" for rapid spread of fires.

Change TRPA regulations to "fully enforce" existing California regulations regarding vegetation clearance around structures. Kranz favors some level of treatment extending at least 100 feet. TRPA officials agreed Wednesday that regulations should be uniform throughout the Tahoe Basin.

Allow homeowners to remove dead trees and small trees greater in diameter than the current limit of 6 inches without a permit.

"We have to recognize public safety has to come first," Kranz said.

Coe Swobe, a former Nevada lawmaker and Nevada at-large member of the board, will chair the TRPA committee. Other members will be local elected officials from Nevada and California counties and South Lake Tahoe.

Discussion Wednesday centered whether the committee would be a new and unnecessary level of bureaucracy and conflict with the goals of the panel created by the governors that will meet Sept. 10.

Swobe said Gibbons told him Tuesday the goals of both groups are compatible.

"He said go for it, and I am going to go for it," said Swobe, who previously argued for creation of a TRPA wildfire committee but failed to win support.

"I think it's time we start a new course and a new beginning," Swobe said, arguing the need to "get the bureaucracy out of the way."

El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago, who represents the Angora Fire area, called the committee's creation a "message of our commitment."

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