El Dorado County testing VHR fire safety inspection program
In September, a vacation home rental off Lodgepole Trail in South Lake Tahoe went from a small burn on the deck to a fully involved structure fire that left the home a complete loss within minutes.
It was a high-wind, red-flag day. Though no one was injured in the accidental fire, according to Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief Tim Alameda, no one heard the smoke alarms either. That’s because the alarms inside the home weren’t working.
“The owners were from way out of town,” Alameda said earlier this month at the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting. “They didn’t understand why smoke alarms were required to be annually checked.”
With a pilot program for the unincorporated area of the Lake Tahoe Basin, approved 5-0 by the board, the county and the fire district hope to minimize these sorts of events within vacation home rentals (VHRs) in the future.
According to county administrative analyst Sue Hennike, the county has established fees based on the square footage of a home to be inspected. Homes less than 1,500 square feet will pay a $325 fee; $650 for homes 1,500 to 3,000 square feet; $975 for homes 3,001 to 4,500 square feet; and $1,300 for homes over 4,500 square feet.
Area, for the purposes of fee calculation, applies only to habitable areas of a house, not to places like the garage or carport, according to the county’s resolution establishing the program.
Fees will be paid when permits are issued and then after inspections every other year beyond that, Hennike said. VHR owners also get one re-inspection at no additional cost, to correct fire safety errors pointed out in an original inspection.
District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl spoke of some uneasiness with the pricing scheme, pointing out that a home one square foot over a threshold might pay double the fee. He supported it in a pilot program but advised revisiting the fee schedule if the program is fully implemented.
“We realize this is a pretty substantial fee,” Hennike said Tuesday. “We’re trying to be conscious of the cost of putting one of these businesses in place, but … keep the safety of visitors to properties and communities in mind.”
Hennike said the county looked at other options, such as continuing with self-certification and self-inspection of VHRs by their owners. They looked at hiring additional county staff to conduct the inspections, which would have costed approximately $320,000 for the first year, she said.
The Lake Valley fire district was chosen as a partner because 70 percent of the unincorporated Tahoe Basin’s VHRs land within their jurisdiction.
Inspection fees will be collected by the county and then remitted to the Lake Valley fire district, where Alameda said they will go right back into risk reduction. Alameda estimated at the meeting that revenues could be $190,000 to $200,000 annually.
Alameda said the topic of fire safety in homes isn’t local. Studies from the Pew Research Center point out issues across the country, Alameda said, whether it comes to smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors or basic fire safety.
In the case of the structure fire off Lodgepole Trail, Alameda illustrated the program’s point: The cost for a fire inspection would have been $650, while the structure loss is $650,000.
Hennike said staff will report on the program in March and again next October, bringing back a review of inspection fees and an evaluation.
Alameda and Lake Valley fire district marshal Brad Zlenick reinforced a few concepts of fire safety in emails sent after the meeting: refrain from burning outside during red-flag warnings and check batteries in smoke detectors when the clocks change in spring and fall.
In the event of fire, they said, leave the area, call 911, stay on the line with the dispatcher, do not try to fight the fire yourself and never re-enter a burning structure.