unedited June Tahoe Mt. News
By Kathryn Reed
Twenty-three days before the one-year anniversary of the most devastating fire to chew through the Lake Tahoe Basin, Tara Brennan and Tony Colombo were planting flowers outside their lot on Mount Olympia Circle.
A handwritten sign with some of the words recited during the blessing of their lot last month is out front. The contemporary Victorian it’s being framed. The contractor set March 2009 as the move-in date. Brennan has her fingers crossed for Christmas.
A lopped off charred tree remains. The blackened bark will come off. It will be an icon of what was. Decorating it will be part of the remembrance, part of a new beginning.
Colombo doesn’t want the standard green or brown bear box. He plans to paint it to match the colors of the house.
A picnic table sits on a concrete slab out back. The slab survived the June 24, 2007, fire that charred 3,100 acres, caused more than $150 million in damage and cost $23 million to fight.
The couple has lived here for decades. The thought of moving elsewhere wasn’t ever a consideration.
Nonetheless, the last year has not been easy. They are about $350,000 underinsured. Brennan doesn’t have great things to say about State Farm. The insurance issue is far from settled.
The economy has taken a turn for the worse, forcing Brennan to close Pandora’s Trunk, an upscale resale shop for women. July 26 is her last day.
“I know I lost a good 60 percent of my regular customers. They don’t live here anymore,” Brennan said. “I think we have lost our middle class.”
The one good thing from having to empty the Emerald Bay Road store is discovering a box of old photographs. Something from the past, something of their lives they thought was lost.
Brennan and Colombo were out of town when the illegal campfire whipped into what is now known as the Angora Fire so they were not able to grab anything.
Neither is satisfied with what has happened in the last year. They want the grand jury to delve into the investigation of who started the fire. The Forest Service says they still have no idea who left the smoldering fire at Seneca Pond.
Brennan says she has a file 2-feet-high about conflicting statements and other things that have gone on in the last year.
“Something does not fly right. The whole thing doesn’t. The fact that the 911 operators were reassigned quickly. There are just some really strange things surrounding this fire I cannot understand,” Brennan said
She has approached El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago about her misgivings, but has not gone to the grand jury directly.
The couple is part of the sixty-three present of the homeowners who lost houses last summer who have filed building plans with the county. Of those 161 permits, 153 applications were filed in 2007 so they can use California’s old building regulations.
Tina and Mike Shannon hope to move into their house on Cone Road in July.
“I guess it gets better every day, but it’s difficult. It’s hard to explain how difficult,” Tina Shannon said. “I know people will say wow you are getting new stuff. But I want the stuff I had.”
The Shannons grabbed pictures and their dog that Sunday.
“You just go totally stupid when it happens. My mind just went: Is this really happening? Are we leaving our house for the last time?” Shannon said.
The couple is renting a place with their best friends who also lost their home in the fire. They don’t sit around dwelling about their predicament. But it is comforting to be able to talk to people who understand the emotional roller coaster of the last year.
They had put on an addition in January 2007, so the building department was familiar ground. But it wasn’t all easy.
“It’s Tahoe,” was her response to – How is the rebuilding process going?
They are some of the lucky ones when it comes to insurance issues.
“We had AAA and they were very good to us. We are doing all right,” Shannon said.
The county waived building fees for people not expanding their footprint. However, so far 152 are going bigger.
Two homes have been completely rebuilt, with their owners back in. Six homes that needed to be repaired before being habitable have been signed off as well. Another six were waiting for final inspection at the first of this month.
As of early this month, 24 houses passed the footing inspection, another two dozen have their foundation and passed the girder inspections, a couple dozen passed framing, the same number have passed the sheet rock inspection.
Mike Applegarth, senior administrative analyst with the county, said about 15 lots have been sold. If that lot has a building permit for it, it can be transferred to the new owner. Permits are good for three years.
The bi-state fire commission created last summer by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Gibbons sent 90 recommendations to the men. The state leaders acted May 27 by signing an emergency declaration regarding the threat of fire in the basin.
Photos in the report from 1928 show Angora Ridge with sparse vegetation. The Forest Service used that photo at its May 22 meeting to demonstrate what Angora Ridge looked like on June 23, 2007 -- full of trees – is not what it has always looked like.
The commission’s 247-page report’s six categories are: Environmental Protection, Issues of Governance, Community and Homeowner Fire Prevention, Forest and Fuels Management, Fire Suppression, and Funding.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which was pummeled by residents at meetings and in the media for months after the fire, received a standing ovation by the commission at its last meeting.
TRPA is charged with taking a more active role in fire issues inside the basin.
“Certainly the fire brought to the forefront of a lot of peoples’ minds the need to do defensible space at their house,” said John Singlaub, TRPA executive director. “It forced us to look at how our erosion control program interfaces with defensible space.”
The report said one of the first priorities is fuel reduction projects in the wildland urban interface. By July 1, Cal Fire is supposed to have worked with the local fire agencies and TRPA to establish a single phone number for basin homeowners to call for information on defensible space guidelines.
Conflicts between erosion control rules and fire safety measures have been resolved. Don’t put pine needles by the edge of your house. TRPA now allows trees 14 inches in diameter to be cut without a permit. The old rule was 6 inches.
“Lahontan is getting out of the business of permits for forest fuels. We are still in the process to make all the changes to get there. That was a recommendation from the commission and Lahontan agreed.”
Harold Singer, executive director of Lahontan Water Quality Control Board, did not return multiple calls. His was one of the 254 home destroyed. He attended the May meeting when the governors were at Lake Valley fire station in Meyers.
The California Resources Agency and the California Environmental Protection Agency will monitor the progress of the revised memorandum of understanding between TRPA and Lahontan with regard to reduction of fire hazards. Schwarzenegger wants a report on his desk by Jan. 1, 2009, about the progress.
The recently create Tahoe Fire & Fuels team will use about $4.4 million from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act this season to have fire districts treat 500 acres in the basin.
About a quarter of that money is targeted for a defensible space rebate program for private property owners. Some of the money is earmarked for creating fuel breaks and residential chipping programs.
“Living With Fire”, produced by the UNR Cooperative Extension, is a collaboration between Tahoe fire departments and agencies such as TRPA.
TRPA changed its rules about allowing mechanized equipment in stream environmental zones four years ago, even though at the time of the fire people didn’t know.
“What we are doing is working with the Tahoe Fire & Fuels team which is a group of fire chiefs, TRPA and Forest Service. We’ll go out on any proposed treatment in an SEZ and talk about the equipment. We call it rapid response,” Singlaub said.
A decision will be made within 72 hours about what equipment can be used. Hand thinning is easier on the environment and puts less sediment into streams which flow into the Lake. That’s why mechanized treatments are such a big deal.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe’s reaction to the commission’s report is mixed.
“The good is the recognition of the need for all different levels of government to be involved and to be more aggressive about reducing fire risk,” said Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League. “The bad is the emphasis of road building outside of urban areas as opposed to using less impactful methods of thinning. What is missing is a clear assignment of accountably for making sure that defensible space is achieved in our urban area. It remains unclear whether fire chiefs will be responsible or whether the state will be responsible or whether the responsibility remains solely with private homeowners.”
Despite the ambiguities in the report, Singlaub said TRPA is putting defensible space in the fire chiefs’ hands.
The fire chiefs had a conference call on May 30 to work on defensible space enforcement issues for private property owners. All the kinks are still being worked out.
“It’s hard to create a synergy in a neighborhood when people don’t live there,” city Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti said.
About 75 percent of the houses throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin are owned by second homeowners.
What is happening
Gigliotti and Police Chief Terry Daniels will give a presentation to the City Council on June 17 about what their agencies have done in the past year to be better prepared for the next catastrophe.
The Lake Tahoe Airport, which was used as a command center during the fire, is now a joint operating facility for the city and county to function as the local Office of Emergency Services.
Two WiFi connections are in place, as well as multiple phone lines. One could be dedicated for a recorded outgoing message updating the community about the crisis.
How to handle crews working 12-hour shifts was sorted out. Things like food and water for these people was not part of the planning until now.
Mutual aid agreements with the Forest Service have been renegotiated.
The city has upgraded its fleet of vehicles to be better for wildland fires.
Under the Fire Suppression category of the commission’s report it says the states and feds need to ensure the basin has 24/7 fire suppression resources, Cal Fire needs to be brought back into the basin, and the Nevada Air National Guard’s C-130s should have firefighting systems.
Much discussion has been had about the need for a firefighting helicopter at Lake Tahoe Airport. About 80 percent of the terrain burned in Angora was charred within eight hours. Low humidity, high temperatures and windy conditions made for the perfect firestorm.
“We had a lot of resources at our disposal quickly,” Rex Norman, spokesman for the Forest Service said. “We had helicopter resources within minutes, but wind made it too difficult. All the hardware can’t help you if conditions don’t let you use them.”
All agencies are part of the 10-year plan to rid forest fuels of the basin. It will be an ongoing process because vegetation never stops growing.
“There’s a misconception that now that the fire came through you don’t have a fuels issue. Really, only 20 percent of the burnable material burned,” Norman said. “Now with the mortality of a lot of trees there is maybe four times as much fuels as we had before the fire.”
Getting residents involved
The Nevada Fire Safe Council, which operates on both sides of the state line and has an office in South Lake Tahoe, is working on defensible space. The only city chapter is in the Tahoe Tyrol neighborhood.
Chief Gigliotti said with 70 percent of the homes throughout the basin being owned by second homeowners, he and the other six fire chiefs are working on how to get those people involved.
The Chimney Rock chapter, which is the largest in Nevada with 423 houses, gathered a multitude of agencies on May 14 to simulate what would happen if their Stateline neighborhood were ablaze.
Residents were involved, too. Dispatchers in Minden notified about 75 households via the reverse 911 directory to the drill as it unfolded. Residents were advised they could “evacuate” county administration building’s parking garage.
Four years ago during the Glenbrook drill the 911 reverse system had glitches. Not this time.
This was the first time the water district and the Nevada Department of Transportation participated in a drill like this. Nevada Highway Patrol and U.S. Forest Service were invited, but chose not to participate.
A lighter note
The community is invited to a party on June 24 at the Horizon. Tickets for the Angora Benefit Concert are available at www.angorabenefitconcert.com.
Sixty Jeffrey pine seedlings are taking root on the four lots owned by El Dorado County in the burn area. They were donated by the Israeli consulate in commemoration of that country’s 60th anniversary. They were planted June 5.
• Video from May 27 signing of emergency declaration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggbVnCEwX1g
• Kathay Lovell’s video blog on governor’s website:
• Fire Commission report:
• Nevada Fire Safe Council:
Andrew List, executive director, 775-220-8967
• June 24, 2007, Angora Fire started
• July 2, 2007, fire fully contained
• July 5, 2007, bi-state commission formed
• May 27, 2008, governors declare state of emergency in Lake Tahoe Basin
• 3,100 acres burned
• 254 houses destroyed