Monday, October 15, 2007

Fire commish considers state of emergency for Tahoe

By Barbara Barte Osborn - Bee Correspondent
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, October 14, 2007
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B3

A two-state fire commission charged with examining the Tahoe basin's vulnerability to wildfire has voted to start gathering information to show that the basin is in a state of emergency.

The California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission's lone federal representative cast the only dissenting vote Friday on a motion "to proceed with an intent to find that a state of emergency exists and to then recommend that both governors declare a state of emergency due to high fuel levels in the basin."

In a second vote, the commission directed a committee to develop a record of fact that an emergency exists.

"We think it's justified, but we first need to demonstrate that factually," said Todd Ferrara, the commission's spokesman. "I would foresee it coming back for a formal vote in December or January."

Jim Peña, who represents the U.S. Forest Service on the commission, said his concern is that an emergency declaration "could be sending a false message to the public that the risks or hazards will be completely abated in a short time."

Removal of the tremendous buildup of hazardous fuels in the basin is bound to take several years, he said in an interview, "and it's difficult to sustain an emergency state."

However, at Friday's all-day meeting in Tahoe City, Peña said, "There was a strong feeling by everybody but me that a state of emergency should be declared ... to get the fuel work funded to reduce the (fire) threat."

"I completely understand the rationale of the other members, and I'll support it from here on," Peña said. "In concept, they believe it's the right thing to do, but it's going to take more staff work to develop a basis and findings."

Kate Dargan, California's state fire marshal, said, "You need to know the level of emergency, what funding could be obtained, how it would be implemented and how success would be measured."

One key challenge: the need to reduce high fuel levels in the Lake Tahoe basin.

"It's not just the high fuel loads in the basin," said Dargan. "That certainly is a key element. But it's also the connection between the lake and the high fuel load.

"Heavy fuel loads exist all over the West, but they don't threaten an internationally known lake that's one of only two in the world," she said. "It warrants a different look."

The commission was established by the two states' governors after June's Angora fire on the west side of South Lake Tahoe.

After studying various approaches to reducing the threat of wildfires while protecting the environment, the commission is to submit a report and recommendations to the governors by March 21.

Caused by an illegal campfire, the Angora fire began June 24, burned 3,100 acres of forest and wooded subdivisions and destroyed more than 250 homes, as well as 75 commercial and other structures.

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