Note: The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team is a partnership of federal, state and local agencies working to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and promote fire defensible space at Lake Tahoe. On the team are fire organizations, representatives of the USDA Forest Service, the Nevada Fire Safe Council, agencies including the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and state organizations. This is part of a series of articles from the team advising residents and visitors on how we can learn to live with fire while still protecting property, public safety and Lake Tahoe ’s environment.
By Norb Szczurek , Incident Commander, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team
The surge of defensible space work carried out in our communities following the Angora and Washoe fires in 2007 was relatively easy to sustain without encouragement. So fresh in our memories were the towering firestorm, showers of ash and evacuations that few of us needed prodding. Recently, the rush to thin trees and brush and to move stacks of cordwood has faded. Like a trendy health remedy, defensible space at Lake Tahoe is slowly moving to the back of the medicine cabinet.
Perhaps this is only human nature, but our communities and our renowned environment deserve more. This place deserves the sustained commitment of everyone to reduce the threat of wildfire—even if it takes a reminder citation to keep the momentum going.
Defensible space is more than good sense, it is also state law in California and was recently adopted into law in Nevada . In California neighborhoods this summer, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ( CAL Fire) is working with local fire agencies to carry out area-wide inspections and cite non-compliant properties. In Nevada communities this year, although a legal framework is available for the first time, fire districts are remaining focused on education and the steady volunteerism coming from property owners. In both states, the law requires that properties with structures on them have defensible space to 100 feet or the property line, whichever is nearest.
For fire fighters, defensible space around homes can never take a backseat. Good defensible space allows firefighters to protect your home safely without facing unacceptable risk to their lives. Research and experience have shown that fuel reduction around buildings increases the probability of it surviving a wildfire. Seventy-five percent of the homes that survived the Angora Wildfire had defensible space.
Perhaps some property owners are “on the fence” regarding defensible space. They see it as a good thing, but are unsure what to do. Well, now more than ever at Lake Tahoe , excuses for not doing defensible space are scarce. Agencies have worked together to make sure defensible space guidelines are seamless and supportive. The Living With Fire Guide for the Tahoe Basin is available on video and in print at any fire house and online at www.livingwithfire.info. This guide is all one needs to get started. Efforts to educate property owners and to offer free assistance continue all around the lake with free evaluations and tree permits, free curbside chipping, free dump days. The Nevada Fire Safe Council has brought important funding to Lake Tahoe and is again offering homeowners who complete their defensible space rebates of 50% of the cost of vegetation management up to $1,000. Please contact your local fire district to sign up for a Defensible Space Evaluation to get started. These are important tools for fire fighters, but no less important than enforcement of existing codes. What Lake Tahoe has right now is a great support system for full time residents and second homeowners to achieve defensible space. All we need is to keep moving people through that system at a pace that equals the threat.
Home improvement needs rarely come with good timing. In good economic times or bad, wildfire equally threatens us all. If you feel that you can’t afford the time or the expense, remember that you live in a high fire hazard area. Defensible space must be a high-priority use of your spare time. Many activities in the Living With Fire Guide require little or no money to complete. Moving forward now also ensures that you can implement defensible space on a schedule that works for you. Waiting for a citation from the fire district puts you on a more rigid schedule for completion. Please also remember that the objective of enforcement is not to collect fines. Firefighters would rather see homeowners putting their resources toward defensible space than paying fines and as long no one ignores the first citation, no one will pay a fine. Issuing violation notices is only a tool to keep momentum moving forward on defensible space.
Even though the wave of activity on private properties is subsiding, your fire agencies continue to encourage property owners to take action and to think beyond their property lines. There is more at stake than just one person’s home. The health of Tahoe’s forests is inescapably related to the health of the watershed and to the communities residing under the forest canopy.
For more information visit www.fire.ca.gov or download the Living With Fire Guide at www.livingwithfire.info.
Norb Szczurek is Incident Commander for the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team and Fire Chief for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District in Incline Village, NV.