Wildfire safety has improved at Lake Tahoe in the five years since the Angora fire, but there is still work to be done, according to a report card released this week by California Sen. Ted Gaines.
Gaines, R-Rocklin, gave fire safety in the basin a "C-" following a media tour through the burn area Monday afternoon.
"I think we have made tremendous progress, but we still have a long way to go," Gaines said at a public forum at South Tahoe High School following the tour.
The grade was the result of an analysis by the Senate Office of Research that found 60 of 90 recommendations by the bi-state Blue Ribbon Fire Commission formed following the Angora fire have been implemented. The fire destroyed 3,100 acres and 254 homes in June 2007.
Approximately 10 of the commission's recommendations are works in progress and about 20 have not been implemented or have unclear statuses, according to the analysis.
Adopting ordinances requiring existing structures be retrofitted to meet modern fire standards, completing a basin-wide study to determine the cost of updating undersized water infrastructure and extending the authority of the commission or establishing a successor commission, are among the recommendations that have not been implemented, according to the analysis.
Basin agencies have treated more than 7,000 acres for excessive fuel loading since the fire, burdensome regulatory processes have been streamlined to allow for more effective wildfire preparedness and cooperation between agencies regarding forest management has improved since the fire, according to several agency officials.
Still, disagreements between the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and U.S. Forest Service have delayed a massive fuel-reduction project at the South Shore.
The South Shore Fuel Reduction and Healthy Forest Restoration Project was delayed following a 2009 disagreement between the agencies over the level of review needed for the more than 10,000-acre effort.
During an April meeting, U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor Nancy Gibson said some of the water board's requirements for the project were "unnecessary and redundant," while Lahontan staff contended elements of the project needed closer scrutiny to ensure they did not negatively impact water quality.
John Adamski, a resident of the North Upper Truckee neighborhood who has raised concerns about the pace of the South Shore project, said neighbors are anxious for the fuel-reduction project to start.
"As residents, we're very concerned about the fuels right at the end of our streets," Adamski told Gaines at Monday's forum. In development since 2004, the South Shore project is expected to start in July.
The Forest Service is nearing completion of fuel removal in the Angora fire area, has completed one full round of fuels management on its approximately 3,500 urban lots and is poised to complete thousands of additional acres of fuel reduction in upcoming years, said Mike LeFevre, planning staff officer for the Forest Service. The agency is "really hitting our stride" when it comes to getting projects done on the ground, he said.
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency spokeswoman Kristi Boosman said the "C-" grade by Gaines undermined the "tremendous amount of effort" that has gone into increasing fire safety in the Lake Tahoe Basin since Angora.
The agency completed changes to its ordinances recommended by basin fire chiefs and has implemented all feasible recommendations from the bi-state report, Boosman said. Lahontan has also addressed each of the recommendations applicable to the water board, according to a Friday statement.
Some of the commission's recommendations, like creating a single point of contact for defensible space, are not practical, Boosman said. The Tahoe Fire & Fuels Team found the recommendation to be infeasible because residents have easy access to their local fire protection districts and defensible space programs have been working without issues, Boosman said.
Complacency surrounding defensible space and diminishing funding for fuel work were also among the concerns raised at Monday's forum.
Many residents and property owners are becoming complacent in respect to the need for defensible space, changes to a property that make it more likely to survive a wildfire, according to several officials who spoke Monday.
"I think there is a concern that people may be backing off," said TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta.
Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief Gareth Harris said second homeowners, especially, present an ongoing issue because they may not be as interested in the importance of creating defensible space on their properties as full-time residents.
"That type of complacency and attitude makes it a challenge," Harris said.
Diminishing public funding for fire safety measures, including Lake Valley's 20-person fuels crew, is also a concern, Harris said.
"The funding to get that work done is drying up," Harris said.
On Monday, Gaines said he would continue to update the report card released this week as additional fire commission recommendations are completed.
He said there is still a lot of work to be done and people who live in and visit the basin need to be "ever vigilant" when it comes to wildfire.
"Things tend to fade," Gaines said of the importance of wildfire preparedness. "And we can't afford that in the Lake Tahoe Basin."