Embattled agency defended in wake of Angora backlash
June 28, 2007
As the Angora fire moved closer to containment on Thursday, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency officials were preparing for possible swift changes to policy and litigation to accompany the finger-pointing of an angry public.
For as long as it has been around the agency has always had its share of critics. And bashing the TRPA is as common a practice among Tahoe locals and the environmental community as the beaches filling up on the Fourth of July. Still no one has arguably targeted the agency more viscerally in recent years than South Tahoe resident and real estate agent Sue Abrams.
Even before the ash from the Angora fire had settled, an emotionally charged Abrams, whose home was damaged from the fire, accuses the agency of making decisions that put politics over safety, something the agency vehemently denies.
“No policies in the 30 years I’ve been here allow us to create defensible space,” Abrams told the Tahoe Daily Tribune earlier this week. “Every ordinance that was put together over the past 30 years except for the past year or so has been hands-off. Every bit of this was preventable had politics moved aside.”
Abrams filed suit against the federal government in 1997 concerning the management of hazard trees in the basin and is looking to bring issues surrounding the Angora fire into court as well by threatening to file a class action suit.
“If they feel like suing us, I guess they will,” said TRPA executive director John Singlaub. “We have been very clear and very open for the need for people to defend their home with the development of defensible space. I’m not sure what the basis would be for a lawsuit.
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“Where we’ve fallen down – apparently not enough people know about defensible space. People know what was done 20 years ago, and it’s not the same as it is today. We’ve put so much energy into defensible space – I’m surprised people still have so little knowledge (of) what’s out there.”
The bi-state agency was formed In 1969 by an Act of Congress passed by President Nixon. A compact was created and then revised in 1980 to give the TRPA authority to adopt environmental quality standards.
The embattled agency’s governing board adopted a long-range regional plan in 1984. That same day, two parties filed suit in federal court claiming they were not convinced the plan would adequately protect the Lake Tahoe environment, starting a long tradition of the agency finding itself in litigation.
TRPA released a revised plan in 1987 to protect the lake’s health and clarity, still in effect today. TRPA was sued again by several hundred landowners for its land use restrictions in that plan.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tahoe landowner Bernadine Suitum, who had been prohibited from building on her lot by the agency because it was a designated wetland.
The court ruled in her favor and said she could contest the value of the transferable development rights attached to her property.
Though the Angora Fire still smolders, politicians like Republican Sen. Dave Cox are getting heated over the agency’s effectiveness, calling the fire a “wake-up call” for the agency.
Others feel the angry public laying blame and politicians using the agency as a scapegoat for political purposes is grandstanding at its worst, during the worst possible time.
“Trying to use this tragedy as a means to further political agendas is totally inappropriate,” said Tahoe Area Sierra Club president Michael Donahoe. “I’ve done defensible space work in my own backyard. I had big trees – they’re gone. TRPA’s rules allow for that right now.
“Apparently a lot of people don’t understand you can walk down to the fire department today and if they see it’s a fire danger, it gets removed. We need to correct any misinformation.”
Politicians on the right have also blamed environmentalists for overgrown forest near the fire’s footprint. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the fire was “largely human-caused,” referring to the work of overprotective environmentalists that has undermined the overall goal of keeping the forest healthy and prepared for disaster.
Environmentalists counter that they, more than any other interest group, have supported responsible forest maintenance and preservation. “In California, the Sierra Club was the one that sponsored the bill to extend defensible space from a 30-foot to 100-foot (perimeter) around property,” Donahoe said.
The real problem, Donahoe said, is money and where federal funds have been allocated in recent years.
“In 2004, we came up with a seven-point plan to ask the federal government to spend $2 billion a year for five years on defensible space work,” he said “It hasn’t happened because budgetary priorities have been elsewhere during this chunk of time.
“After Clinton and Gore came here in 1997, there was a goal set to thin 3,000 acres a year. We’ve only done 12,700 acres since then – funding has been a problem.”
The TRPA is working on short- and long-term plans to keep the public’s attention on defensible space, even after the national spotlight moves away from the Angora fire.
“Unfortunately, this disaster is one way to get everyone on the same level,” TRPA executive director Singlaub said. “It’s a wake-up call to take defensible space seriously. … I don’t want to have any knee-jerk reaction to sweeping changes. We have been talking to the forest service, to the firesafe council. We certainly will be looking at the rules – anything that we feel would make a meaningful change, we’ll do.”
Singlaub said some of these near-term changes could include looking at the forest thinning prescription and making an update using global climate change models.
“We need to ask ourselves, are we using prescriptions from the past?” he said.
A true bi-state agency
Long-term, TRPA officials said they will continue to try to “even the playing field” on both sides of state lines and maintaining what has often been the toughest balance for the agency to achieve – parity on both sides of the California/Nevada border.
“Long-term, we want to build a whole new and improved program,” TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan said. “I think the absolute intention of the basin-wide fuels reduction plan is to unite the (bi-state) effort. We have coordinated all seven basin fire districts, to unify the fuels work that’s being done. The next step is to integrate the forest service’s plan with the community plan. We need to treat this integration with urgency.
“There are other areas even in South Shore that have more fuel loading than in the Angora region. We need to move more quickly to implement that plan.”
Fire officials supported the TRPA’s sentiment this week, sharing anecdotal evidence that the responsibility for completing defensible space and BMP practice lies squarely on the shoulder of the property owner.
“We’re getting to be proactive in getting people to do defensible space work,” said Bob Rossi, battalion chief and 33-year veteran of the Lake Valley Fire Valley Fire District. “Jessica (Mahnken) our defensible space coordinator showed me a couple houses that were saved from defensible space work. In one case, she left notes for people next door that said ‘hey – we can work with you’ – it was an out-of-town home, they did not respond, and their home was lost.”
Mahnken said the public has responded to numerous letters and community gatherings to help inform about defensible space – albeit in small numbers.
Of 5,000 homeowners in the Lake Valley’s Fire District who were sent fliers for a community block party and informational meeting on June 2, 80 people showed up.
“There’s no blame here,” she said. “There’s just not enough of me to go to everyone’s door and remind them. I can work seven days a week, I can come out on Sundays and do inspections. I realize people work – so I can come at 7 at night.”
“It’s one of those things you look at what more could I have done. But there’s a lot people can do to protect themselves. There’s a general feeling from homeowners they don’t know what they can and cannot do, that’s where the anger is coming from. There’s a lot of need for clarification for what homeowners are and are not allowed to do -that’s the key of my job.”
Anger management: Why people get emotionally charged during crisis times
Twelve hundred firefighters and relief workers aren’t the only ones who’ve been working around the clock since Sunday night. TRPA officials, who’ve received their share of public lambasting over the last 96 hours have also had nary a chance to shut their eyes and wish for the nightmare that is the Angora Fire disappear.
But, theirs is a different tale to tell. While firefighters get standing ovations at community meetings, TRPA executive director John Singlaub gets booed off the stage.
Incline Village-based Andrew Whyman, a board-certified psychiatrist and his wife, Barbara Perlman Whyman, a clinical psychologist with a degree in critical stress incidents, analyzed the anger and finger-pointing at the agency from a clinical point of view.
“One of the things in a crisis and in crisis intervention, is you’re looking at disaster squarely in the eye,” Perlman Whyman said. “You don’t have any picture of information – there’s a tendency to need to blame, you want someone to be responsible for it. If there’s a car accident, it’s the car’s fault.
She said when people involved assess a crisis, like a forest fire, emotion distorts the truth.
“Some of the facts may be there, but in most cases it’s not the whole picture,” she said. “When there’s any anger that pre-exists, this is a great time to let it out. If you didn’t like TRPA before – now you’ve got proof.”
She said the “blame game” eventually subsides, but there are long-term effects to those directly involved in trying to help make the situation better.
“People who are engaged in these situations, who are trying the most to help – such as police and fire or even TRPA (staff) have terrible nightmares and guilt,” she said.
Andy Whyman said genuine psychological trauma caused by natural disasters or events like Sept. 11 spark a set of emotional reactions including sadness, depression, emotional discontrol and grief, “and that’s aside forum the reaction by the culture of the community itself.”
Whyman pointed out the fire also falls in its own subcategory of disaster, which can increase the trauma for both those who’ve lost their homes and been misplaced, and those working to fix it.
“The difference in the way we react to a natural catastrophe and a willful man-made desire to harm is pronounced,” Whyman said. “This event falls in an interesting category of ambiguity.
“Some people are going to say it’s the fault of those people who didn’t clean up this forest. Some people are going to say this is a natural disaster, this is like the flood in New Orleans, and yes, man could’ve done more, but forests do their thing, which is they burn – and they’ve done that forever.
One nasty byproduct of this kind of catastrophe is in the political arena, he said.
“It develops a great opportunity for demagoguery,” he said, “because you have an arena of people looking for leadership. In this culture of entitlement we want to know who caused this? We should be able to go to the moon, live in a flood zone, exist in the middle of the forest, because we’re entitled to have all this – that’s where the blame comes in.”
Both Whymans said the best thing people can do is to come together and search for adaptive solutions, not to blame.
That the TRPA shows understanding and empathy even in its own time of crisis is paramount TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan said.
“I think it’s important to realize the community is in shock and is hurting right now and it’s understandable that people are angry at the TRPA,” she said. “We want to make sure we move forward in a way that educates the community how much they can do to prevent fires.”