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Officials review year of fire-safety efforts

Julie Brown / Sierra Sun

Beyond modifying tree-removal permits and clarifying the prescription for defensible space, Lake Tahoe officials say that the unprecedented level of cooperation, consistency and communication between regulatory agencies and fire officials is a critical achievement that rose out of the ashes of last summer’s devastating wildfires.

“There’s a level of cooperation and understanding between land-management agencies and fire professionals that no one’s ever seen before,” said Jeff Cowen, spokesman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “I’ve seen meetings where fire folks are sticking up for water quality and where water-quality folks are sticking up for defensible space. It’s just been a real culture shift.”

Cowen said that throughout all the countless meetings and discussions to improve fire policy and land-management decisions, officials were focused on eliminating conflict to ultimately make defending property from wildfire easier for homeowners.

“One thing we heard a lot after the Angora wildfire was that our messages weren’t unified,” Cowen said. “So we’ve been working to really unify our guidelines and our goals because it really is … a healthy forest means a healthy lake.”

In recognizing that fire safety is the top priority, North Tahoe Fire Protection Chief Duane Whitelaw said that basin agencies have found and agree upon a clear, simple and consistent message to convey to homeowners about what it will take to defend their property.

“It seems like everyone’s rowing the boat in the same direction,” Whitelaw said. “Which all is in the interest of fire safety in the Tahoe Basin.”

Of the nine areas of policy that Tahoe Basin fire chiefs highlighted last year to streamline defensible-space efforts, Whitelaw said all had been addressed.

Increasing the diameter size of trees that property owners may remove without a permit (from 6 to 14 inches) to create defensible space was included among the nine-point list.

“To TRPA’s credit, they have really made an effort to meet the interests of the fire departments around the basin,” Whitelaw said.

Acknowledging that the fire agencies are the professionals who will determine policy within 100 feet of a structure is “one of the single biggest accomplishments” that came out of the year’s discussions, Whitelaw said.

“It’s not the TRPA. It’s not the water board. It’s not the resource conservation district. It is the fire district that has the authority,” Whitelaw said. “That’s a huge step in clarifying what needs to go into this simple, concise message.”

Agreeing upon a prescription for defensible space in Tahoe, one that manages pine needle accumulation but also addresses erosion control, was another huge accomplishment in Whitelaw’s eyes. A “Living With Fire” publication detailing the requirements of defensible-space zones will be sent out to every district property owner in the coming weeks.

“It’s one thing to enforce (defensible space), it’s one thing to ultimately have it happen, but we need here in Tahoe, as a prelude to all of that, was we had to reach agreement on what (defensible space) looks like,” Whitelaw said.

Another significant stride Whitelaw noted was the fire agency pre-approval stamp that construction projects must have before they can submit their application to the TRPA.

Policy revision and change can only go so far. Now, the success of the year’s progress lies in the hands of homeowners who need to carry out defensible space, and officials hope the changes that have been made will ease the process.

“We have the vision. We have the strategy of what it looks like now,” Whitelaw said. “And so everyone, whether it’s baby steps to giant steps, (needs to progress) toward that objective of creating a more fire-safe basin. Because we know that we’ve got to protect this lake, and the homes and the people.”

With the start of Lake Tahoe’s grading season May 1, officials hope homeowners will be thinking about wildfire protection and installing stormwater Best Management Practices, according to a statement from the TRPA.

“The old analogy that your defensible space is as good as your neighbor’s is true,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not just about getting your home done. It’s about getting your neighborhood done, your community done ” ultimately, the Tahoe Basin done.”

But how quickly the policy changes will translate to on-the-ground action on behalf of homeowners still is up in the air. Cowen said the TRPA anticipates a busy summer, but not as active as they would like it to be.

“We’re just not sure if the message is really out there yet,” Cowen said. “We know that the (Angora) fire has changed things in the basin … but human behavior is a little slower to change than popular opinion.”


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