As Tahoe fire weakens, burning question of blame intensifies
June 28, 2007
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) ” As smoke clears from fire-scarred mountaintops, a powerful local environmental agency has emerged as a favorite target for those seeking to assign blame for the devastating wildfire that ravaged more than 200 homes and other buildings this week.
The fire, some say, was a disastrous side-effect of Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s sometimes single-minded approach to preserving the lake’s legendary clarity. Its strict policies include fining homeowners thousands of dollars for cutting down trees from their own properties.
Such activities, the TRPA asserts, expose the forest floor and promote erosion that degrades the watershed and muddies the lake. But critics say the agency has paralyzed residents from taking aggressive steps to protect their homes and left a forest littered with tinder-dry fuel ready to burst into flame.
“This may be a wake-up call,” said Republican state Sen. Dave Cox, whose district includes South Lake Tahoe. “When you have residents who have a concern about whether they can remove a tree … there are some things that are pretty crazy.”
The TRPA’s executive director, John Singlaub, said he’s been shocked by the public backlash.
“The need to blame is apparently high,” he said.
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Since taking over in 2004, Singlaub said the agency’s board has made fire safety a priority, including allowing homeowners to increase defensible space around homes and reduce the threat of a catastrophic fire.
“I thought our message was out there better,” Singlaub said “I was not expecting this.”
Singlaub was less conciliatory during his first explosive encounter with the public at a town hall meeting Monday, when the blaze was still tearing through forests south and west of the local commercial hub of South Lake Tahoe. Many in the crowd of about 1,200 booed and shouted down a defiant Singlaub as he tried to defend the TRPA’s policies.
Two days later, when he resurfaced to tour the destruction with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, local reporters and town leaders interrupted the governor’s news conference to pepper the TRPA director with questions.
With the West’s chronic droughts and housing crunch pushing development deeper into fire-prone forests, the need to assign blame has become an increasingly common post-wildfire theme.
But perhaps nowhere has that public vitriol been so clearly directed at a common target, said Malcolm North, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and an associate professor of forest ecology at the University of California, Davis.
“People are probably being unfairly critical of TRPA, but it’s partly of its own doing,” North said. “They’ve been a pretty top-down, draconian agency. They have made significant improvements in recent years, but I don’t know that people have noticed.”
Instead, residents say, they were scared even to remove pine needles from around their houses. Doing so beyond five feet from a home, the agency has decreed, exposes too much bare soil ” a prime culprit in erosion.
Anger over that rule and others only intensified when residents began returning to the gutted remains of their homes. Amid the wreckage were eerie hints that the agency may have failed at balancing its responsibilities to protect both the lake and its residents.
“I went around my whole property and took out every single pine needle,” said Neil Cohn, 35, pointing to a blackened line where the advancing fire that destroyed eight of his neighbors’ homes stopped short of his own.
“TRPA came up here last year and gave me a warning but I did it anyway, and I’ll keep doing it.”
But even Cohn acknowledges he may have simply been lucky and that swirling gusts of wind through the mountains are a more likely explanation for the fire’s seemingly random path of destruction.
Still, stories like his are quickly becoming the stuff of mountain legend and fueling speculation about the future of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
“I say forget it,” said resident Bob Harms, who was evacuated Sunday. “TRPA’s been on a power trip too long. If you live here, you know there are trees that have to come down.”
A bi-state agency conceived in the 1960s by Republican Govs. Ronald Reagan of California and Paul Laxalt of Nevada, the TRPA was created by an Act of Congress and President Nixon and charged with the lofty goal of preserving a national treasure and its fragile environment.
But many residents say it overstepped its original mission by telling people what kind of outdoor lights they can have, what color they can paint their houses, even what kind of vegetation they can plant.
With regulatory power over Tahoe-area residents that supercedes even that of the state, abolishing the TRPA would not be easy, but its critics say they will demand changes and Singlaub said he’s open to revisiting some policies.
“If it means we should be allowing people to cut (slightly bigger) trees, that’s something we could easily do,” Singlaub said. “It may be that with global warming, the prescriptions for the past won’t work in the future.”
With climate change, increasingly dry summers are believed to be in store for much of the West and scientists say that could make deadly wildfires even more common.
Still, protecting the lake’s water clarity ” which has improved under the agency’s stewardship but remains below historic levels ” is still job No. 1, Singlaub said.
“Just by living here we degrade the clarity,” he said.
Chad Hanson, executive director of the environmental group John Muir Project, said many of TRPA’s rules, while well-intentioned, just seem too strict.
“We need two have two serious discussions,” he said. “How do you protect homes in the rural West? … And how do we keep healthy forests? They’re different, and politically people don’t like to look at the science.”
Whatever changes the agency makes, Singlaub said, it can’t do it alone. Residents have the responsibility to build homes with fire-resistant roofs and make other commonsense decisions about where to build and how to take care of their property, he said.
“I think this is much more of a turning point for the community than (TRPA),” he said. “But we also need to do a better job of reaching out to every homeowner.”
Associated Press Writer Scott Lindlaw contributed to this story.