Fire safety has big price tag | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Fire safety has big price tag

Tahoe Daily Tribune Staff Reports

By Gregory Crofton

Tribune staff writer

It would cost up to $37 million to fund tree-thinning work needed to help protect homes and communities at the Lake Tahoe Basin from a catastrophic wildfire.

That and other statistics concerning the more than 11,000 acres of land where homes mix with forest at the basin will be presented Wednesday when the Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency meets at Stateline.

Members of the Governing Board have pressed staff at the TRPA to make forest fuel reduction a priority since a 673-acre fire burned near the Heavenly gondola in July 2002.

Tahoe’s stringent environmental regulations and the small size of thinning projects have hampered efforts of state agencies working to reduce forest fuels on public land.

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The TRPA plan to be discussed on Wednesday would provide $5.4 million a year over five years to fire safe councils and fire protection districts in the basin in an effort to reduce the number of trees on private land as well as public.

“This is just a starting point,” said Carl Hasty, deputy director at the TRPA. “But what the TRPA is doing is working in earnest to put together the nuts and bolts of a game plan to put the money together and get it started.”

The money to fund the work would likely come from revenue generated by the sale of federal lands in Southern Nevada, or from the Healthy Forest Initiative, Hasty said. The initiative is legislation recently signed into law that aims to speed forest fuel reduction projects on national forest land.

Coe Swobe and Drake DeLanoy, both Governing Board members from Nevada, are a driving force behind the issue of forest thinning at the basin. Swobe is proposing that it be treated as top priority for the TRPA in 2004 because nothing could be worse for the lake clarity or for public safety than a massive wildfire.

“I don’t think anybody can name one issue more important than avoiding a catastrophic fire,” Swobe said. “For water quality our rules and regulations are pretty well in place. We don’t have anything on avoiding a fire in place at all. I want to make it a 12-month priority to get those things in shape.”

About 3,000 acres of the 11,000 acres that need to be thinned are located near streams, land most protected by the TRPA. Swobe says he wants to see rules waived or eliminated to make it possible for foresters to thin trees from streamzones.

TRPA staff could as early as January present rule changes that would facilitate thinning in those areas. Stream restoration projects approved by the TRPA involve the use of back hoes in sensitive areas, so the use of heavy equipment to thin dead trees should be something that can be accomplished, Hasty said.

Also Wednesday, the TRPA Governing Board:

n Is expected to OK the staff’s application for a $100,000 grant from Caltrans. The money would fund a transportation study inside the basin and transportation to the basin.

n Will listen to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board present an update regarding its work to determine how much pollution Lake Tahoe can absorb without continuing to lose its clear waters.

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com