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Incline defensible space viewed as model for basin

Kevin MacMillan
Carrie Richards / North Lake Tahoe Bonanza/ North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District's Slide Mountain Hand Crew members Shane Pearman and Taylor Chambers use their chipper to clear a Forest Service lot in Incline Village on Wednesday. The fire department plans to chip and make burn piles on Forest Service lots in the area to reduce potentially dangerous overgrowth.
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North Lake Tahoe Bonanza

INCLINE VILLAGE – Following the devastating Angora fire on the South Shore, the North Shore is gaining attention for what some say are exemplary defensible space practices.

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Michael D. Brown said his department has fielded numerous phone calls from various Nevada and California media outlets inquiring about the North Shore’s defensible space program since the blaze, which started June 24.

“People are trying to model everything in Washoe County after what we do (in Incline),” Brown said at Wednesday’s fire district board meeting.

But what makes the system for defensible space in Incline better than other areas in the basin?

Officials from the fire district, U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and League to Save Lake Tahoe all agree – it starts with a concerned community.

“My impression is that Incline Village has pursued defensible space much more assertively than other jurisdictions,” said Rochelle Nason, director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “The Incline community has been very supportive in providing funding and insisting that people cooperate as neighbors to get it done.”

Norb Szczurek, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District division chief, said last week that about 90 percent of the highest risk areas surrounding Incline Village/Crystal Bay had been treated.

But a lot of responsibility relies on the community doing its part to fortify inner-Incline, something Szczurek said his division has stressed since 1987.

And the community, for the most part, is doing its job, he said.

“We certainly don’t have 100 percent compliance. I see every day a need for more defensible space,” Szczurek said. “But we have a very proactive program that keeps getting bigger, and we have a very proactive community. Since the Angora fire, I’ve done more interviews for defensible space than in my entire career.”

Since the Angora fire, Incline fire officials have received 66 defensible space requests and 55 chipping requests from residents, according to the fire district.

The large increase in requests shows the community’s desire to help, Szczurek said.

Jeff Cowen, community liaison for TRPA, commended the fire district and the North Shore community.

“When we’re looking at Washoe County, (defensible space progress) in Incline and North Tahoe area is a shining example not only of Washoe County, but of the whole Tahoe Basin,” Cowen said.

Demographics also could play a factor in why defensible space awareness is high in the Incline and North shore areas.

“There’s a lot more similarities with demographics with the North Shore communities than the South Shore communities,” said Rex Norman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “There’s a larger population of lower income people that live in South Lake Tahoe, where in the North Shore there’s a lot more people who own properties and have higher incomes.”

Defensible space can be an expensive endeavor, Nason said, something that better suits residents in Incline.

“This is a very high-value area; it’s a much more prosperous community,” Nason said. “When the population is more owner-occupied, it becomes easier for people to be very motivated to protect their personal investments. (Incline) has the demographics of an older and better educated community you might not see in other locations.”

Norman credited a more lenient set of fire laws in Nevada as another reason for Incline’s superior defensible space awareness.

While California laws require a permit to conduct a controlled burn, and California counties are responsible for weather-related decisions on controlled burns, Nevada doesn’t require controlled burn permits, and lets the people doing the burning make weather-related decisions, Norman said.

Differences like these, he said, makes it easier for programs like defensible space to be practices at higher volume.

One more reason Nason offered is the Incline area benefits from residing in an east-side forest zone, meaning tree and bush coverage is less dense than in communities in western areas, making defensible space practices easier.

“But the ultimate factor is leadership,” Nason said. “And that’s where (Incline Village/Crystal Bay) benefits – from a very energetic community that’s devoted to the issue.’

What will the forester check at my defensible space evaluation?

— Class A roofing, which is fire-rated (e.g. metal, tile, or asphalt shakes);

— All leaves and pine needles removed from gutters/roof;

— All flammable vegetation within 30 to 100 feet of structure removed and brush height and continuity reduced within 30 feet;

— Pine needles cleared at least five feet from the house;

— All green trees limbed six feet from the ground (on trees under 20 feet limb only the bottom third);

— Limbs within 10 feet of structure removed;

— Spark arrester in place, and all vents to crawl space/attic are screened;

— All dead trees removed from property;

— All flammable vegetation within 10 feet of propane tank removed;

— All combustible materials removed from beneath decks, stairways, and overhangs;

— Firewood, lumber, and large woody materials at least 30 feet from structures;

— Address clearly visible to emergency personnel;

— Adequate tree spacing (live trees over 6″ in diameter at the base require a permit for removal).

– Information from Tahoe fire agencies


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