Fires threatened by funding bill |

Fires threatened by funding bill

B.H. Bose

Recent lightning strikes and small brush fires have once again sparked concern about the upcoming fire season. While it won’t be available until the next season, the Tahoe Basin may be getting $2 million to help with fire hazard reduction projects.

A bill passed by the House of Representatives Thursday will clear up $80 million for fuel reduction projects nationwide, of which $15 will go to California. Approximately $2 million will be used specifically for Tahoe Basin projects.

“If passed, it will be a part of the next fiscal year, so it won’t be available until Oct. 1,” said John Martini, spokesman from Rep. John Doolittle’s, R-Calif., office. “We need to take steps to protect the key to what makes Tahoe such a special place. There is no single environmental threat facing Tahoe today more than fire, and Congressman Doolittle had that in mind.”

Doolittle and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., urged committee members during the bill’s drafting phase to include money to help fund fire reduction projects in and around the Tahoe Basin. The $2 million appropriation was included as part of a 1999 Department of Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which is the annual legislation responsible for funding the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

It is estimated that nearly 40 million acres of national forest land are at “severe risk to the threat of catastrophic wildfire,” according to officials at the forest service. In the Tahoe Basin, the percentage of dead or dying trees has been set as high as 30. That means the area is prime for fire, which could cause massive sediment and soil erosion into the lake if a large fire were to occur.

The bill was passed by the House by a vote of 245-181. It will eventually go before the Senate and, it is hoped, to the president for final approval.

“This $2 million fire reduction project money is very necessary to increase the level of safety and awareness at Lake Tahoe and surrounding communities,” said Gibbons. “Congressman Doolittle and I are very pleased with the cooperation and hard work of everyone involved in securing this funding for Tahoe. We are confident that our colleagues will support this critical project.”

Compared to the amount of fuel buildup and the problems that could arise, Martini said the $2 million is really just a start.

“It’s a drop in the bucket to what Tahoe is really in need of,” he said. “Businesses up there know what threat a fire could have on tourism. The U.S. Forest Service really needs to get a handle on this, and the money gives them a starting point. We do recognize that more resources will be needed to tackle this problem.”

No specific reduction projects are mentioned with the bill. However, Martini said a variety of methods will be used with the money, not just prescribed burns.

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