Disaster plan urged
CARSON CITY – An emergency evacuation plan for the Lake Tahoe Basin is needed to try to minimize the human toll of a major wildfire or other disaster, officials said.
Narrow streets, tinder-dry forests and few escape routes around Lake Tahoe spell potential disaster if a large fire breaks out, a legislative committee was told Monday in Carson City.
“Most counties have their own evacuation plans … we need a plan that is coordinated that provides a better information exchange,” said Dick Mirgon, director of emergency management for Douglas County. “That’s the problem we had with the Gondola fire. We were sending folks to Carson City, hadn’t had time to notify them, and the traffic started piling up and they’re going, ‘What happened?’ “
The Gondola fire burned nearly 700 acres near Heavenly Mountain Resort in July 2002. A discarded cigarette ignited the wildfire.
Panel members said the urgency for a plan became even more clear after last month’s Waterfall fire in Carson City that destroyed 17 homes and burned 8,700 acres.
About 62,000 people live in the Lake Tahoe Basin which draws thousands of visitors on any given day.
“Waterfall has just really brought it to a head for us,” said Assemblyman Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, and chairman of the committee that oversees the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “I think we do need a basinwide plan and we do need to stay on task to get that done.”
Fire concerns raised by the committee echoed those expressed earlier this month by federal, state and local officials during an annual forum on Lake Tahoe at Incline Village.
“I don’t have to tell many of us that we’re on borrowed time,” Steve Robinson, natural resources adviser to Gov. Kenny Guinn, said at the time. “We need to try to work together collegially and productively. It’s just too important of an issue to be stuck in a 1970s’ ideological war.”
Hettrick on Monday asked John Singlaub, TRPA executive director, to investigate the cost of hiring a consultant to prepare an evacuation strategy.
The agency said it will help track down funding for such a project, said Julie Regan, TRPA communications director.
“What we will be doing is contacting the emergency management directors of both states to support them in (requesting a) consultant to design a basinwide evacuation plan,” Regan said. “The plan would be handled through those emergency agencies, but because we are a bistate agency, we’d help that process move forward.”
Fire protection officials around the lake are finishing work on plans to reduce wildfire danger in their districts. Those plans are to be rolled into one basinwide plan by the TRPA.
“In the wildfire protection plans that fire districts are developing evacuation considerations are a component,” said Rex Norman, U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer.
Jim Lopey, assistant sheriff for Washoe County, said some evacuations might be by boat. And in many cases, officials said, people might be ordered to shelter in an open spot such as a large parking lot rather than try to leave a threatened area by road or highway.
Creating an evacuation plan for the basin has been tried at least three times in the past, Mirgon said. Efforts failed, he said, because no one agency took a leadership role.
Mirgon said he plans to meet today with an emergency services group that has been meeting each month for the last six months to discuss basinwide evacuation planning.
“The problem is that are some agencies that are missing from the group,” Mirgon said. “Without everybody’s participation, it becomes a problematic plan.”
– Tribune staff writer Gregory Crofton contributed to this report.
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