Ribaudo column: Angora Fire sparked anger, community strength and change
June 29, 2017
The News: My daughter and I were returning from San Francisco, where we watched a Giants game, when we got the message there was a fire and U.S. 50 was closed. As we came over Highway 88 and Pickets Junction we could see the smoke. We parked at the intersection of U.S. 50 and Highway 89 and watched in amazement as we saw flames burning high into the sky and devastating the South Shore. How bad could this get? Bad.
Fire: Every day I woke up early and drove as far as I could toward the fire. It was eerie with dense smoke covering what would have been bright Lake Tahoe mornings.
My office was at the Y in those days and I would look out the window and watch and wait. Would that fire jump Highway 89? My files were packed and ready.
I had read Norman Maclean's classic "Young Men and Fire" and was worried in the back of my mind if tragic disaster awaited those who fought the fire firsthand.
Fighting: I watched in amazement and interest how the Forest Service fought the fire. After the fire was controlled I talked with the forest supervisor and she explained how the Forest Service used technology to fight the fire and how she could access every resource in the Forest Service arsenal to combat the fire.
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Much of the technology to fight the fire, including weather, logistics, fire scenarios, were being done in other places. Fascinating.
Anger: It was a public meeting held at the middle school when then TRPA Executive Director John Singlaub faced the anger of the community — nasty anger, ugly anger.
His efforts in vain telling people, no, the TRPA did let people pick up deadly pine needles. But the crowd wasn't having any of it. They knew better what they had experienced firsthand in their neighborhoods.
It was there that years of distrust and anger toward environmental agencies, including the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board, TRPA, Forest Service and anyone else, manifested itself. It was the first time I thought the possibility of violence was very real.
We Need Help: The next day I called state Senator Dave Cox's office and got through to his chief of staff, who I knew, and told him we needed outside intervention, someone to take over.
Could Gov. Schwarzenegger step in because the agencies inside the basin were not capable of dealing with the public anger, which was turning ugly, and to make the changes needed in policy to fix the situation.
Community: Our finest hour. I watched how the community came together from the littlest to the largest effort. Perhaps united for one time in all the years I have lived here.
Lesson Learned: The fire was a defining event not just for those who suffered personal loss, who have their own anguish seared in their memories of which I can't do justice to describing, but to those agencies entrusted to protect the environment. Their credibility was lost. I learned important lessons:
Environmental agencies didn't work well together. No matter what they said publicly they were more worried about their turf. This focus on their own organizations corrupted their view of what was needed. At that time fire chiefs were not in charge of fire prevention policy. Environmental bureaucrats were.
Environmental agencies at that point were unable to make change in policy without outside forces demanding it. These agencies were incapable of making internally driven change. Big policy change must come from outside as it did with the bi-state fire commission that was formed. Lahontan came kicking and screaming, TRPA got it.
Their singular focus on the environment to the exclusion of other issues was myopic. Driven by ideology, constituent groups and ordinances, these agencies failed. But to their credit they have learned, and gotten better at change and adapting.
The Angora Fire, we were there.
Carl Ribaudo is a columnist, consultant, speaker and writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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