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Lake Valley Fire discusses VHR campfire ordinance, possible solutions

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The Lake Valley Fire Protection District discussed the campfire ordinance at vacation home rentals last week and also celebrated the retirement of a board member.

Robert Bettencourt received praise and congratulations from fellow board members and former chief Tim Alameda, and then applause from district residents during a regular meeting on Thursday, Nov. 12, at Station 7 in Meyers.

Board Members John Rice, Brian Hogan, Gary Moore and Bettencourt were present along with District Chief Brad Zlendick and about two dozen residents.

Following the celebration for Bettencourt, the board heard a presentation about VHRs and their use of campfires from Zlendick. He presented the agenda item and explained the severity of this year’s fire season.

“This year, all fires were halted,” he said. “This was the worst fire season and the state was out of resources.”

Zlendick said that all fires were prohibited due to the fuel moisture percentage being 4%.

“It’s unheard of to hear fuel moisture has dropped that low,” he said.

Fuel moisture percentage is the amount of water in vegetation or fuel. In comparison, fuel without any moisture would be 0%. Zlendick said after resources were deployed around California, the district only had three people left in the agency to cover shifts.

A comment from the public stated that they witnessed the district responding to a VHR campfire in September in their neighborhood and urged for an amendment to the current ordinance to ban campfires and require defensible space.

In the current VHR ordinance, Chapter 5.56 Section 5.56.080, it states a list of fire requirements that have to be posted at the VHR prior to permit including “Outdoor fire areas and fire pits when not prohibited by state or local fire regulations, shall be limited to three feet in diameter, located on a non-combustible surface, covered with fire screens, and located no closer than within 25 feet of a structure or combustible material. Use of fire areas shall require a campfire permit issued by Cal Fire.”

Zlendick said, “Campfires are an ignition source 100%, but so are yours as private residents.”

He stressed that chainsaws and vehicles are high ignition sources as well.

Zlendick said that locals are just as guilty as VHR’s when it comes to campfires, and he was “shocked” to see locals coming after him. One even threatened to sue him.

He said that he needs compliance with VHRs, but also compliance from everyone in the community and that LVFPD takes the stance of education.

Zlendick reminded the public that the district helped create the county program to inspect VHRs with operating permits.

“I think it’s time to update, but let me ask, are campfires okay for you?” he questioned.

Zlendick said they responded this season to quite a few campfires at VHRs.

“We are willing and 100% will go there,” he said about responding to campfire calls.

Hogan said that issue is at a county level and the argument needs to be narrowed down and the focus redirected there.

He said the county-wide plan for this inspection process has been opposed by other fire departments in the county, but the Tahoe region of El Dorado County has about 800 VHRs while other parts have very few.

Another comment from the public stated that there needs to be ‘teeth behind enforcement” and that warnings are not enough and rules should be framed similarly to the VHR bear box ordinance.

Bettencourt said that there needs to be consistency in enforcement and said that there are some technicalities that should be enforced, such as anyone in California is responsible for getting an annual fire permit to have a fire on a certain property.

Another public comment stated that while LVFPD can educate VHR’s occupants, there are new residents in and out every week and this education has to be explained to the homeowners.

An additional comment from the public also stated that VHR’s need to have certified defensible space calling it “reckless endangerment for the neighborhood.”

“I am concerned, but I need your help too,” Zlendick said. “Organize up and get Firewise for me.”

He said part of the problem is that they are governed with different agencies with different rules and VHR’s are run by the county, however, he wants to create a plan and clarify the rules.

Bettencourt also expressed his concern for the issue, but said he didn’t want to restrict responsible homeowners by creating a blanket ordinance. He used the analogy, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater” to explain that he doesn’t want to punish the responsible homeowners.

“I would hate to infringe on them,” he said.

Bettencourt agreed that enforcement through fines will get the attention of the homeowners to properly educate occupants on the dangers of fire in the community. He said communication is key and urged residents to talk to and educate their neighbors.

“Not one person in this house doesn’t agree that this isn’t a problem,” Rice said. “We need an ordinance we can get behind.”


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