Editorial: Fire commission vote a good start, but financial challenges looming
California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission members have accomplished what often has eluded the basin’s many governing bodies: They reached a consensus.
After eight months of meetings following last summer’s catastrophic Angora fire, the commission voted unanimously Friday to seek state and federal emergency declarations to battle what it says is an imminent threat of basin wildfires.
According to the commission, declarations by President Bush and the governors of California and Nevada would provide immediate money to establish fire-prevention programs. A five-year emergency plan is estimated to cost $7.8 million.
The commission’s report, roughly divided between recommendations and findings, voted to pass on approximately 70 recommendations to the states’ two governors. The overall plan now faces a 30-day public review before it reaches the governors for action.
The commission findings come on the heels of an Associated Press report Friday charging that steps to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the Tahoe Basin have been “hampered for years by bureaucratic infighting among agencies that often work at cross purposes.”
The AP reached its conclusions after reviewing what it claimed to be thousands of pages of documents from local, regional, state and federal agencies involved in planning, environmental protection and fire prevention around Lake Tahoe.
The report blames inaction on “the overlapping agencies that have environmental and regulatory oversight of the Tahoe Basin.”
That probably comes as no surprise to South Lake Tahoe’s longtime residents, many of whom angrily vented to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and other regulatory bodies in the aftermath of the Angora fire.
They complained of overly strict, nebulous and contradictory environmental regulations that impeded their ability to protect their homes from wildfire. At odds have been the bodies’ pledges to protect the lake and surrounding countryside and simultaneously enable homeowners to remove fire fuel from around their properties that also acts to limit harmful runoff to Lake Tahoe.
Talk about a perilous balancing act.
While not disregarding agencies’ erosion-control “best management practices,” the commission mandates that fire prevention must take precedence over other concerns.
Consider Recommendation No. 1, for instance: “The restoration of the basin’s forests to a more natural and fire-resilient condition should be a common and primary management goal of all public land management agencies, regulatory agencies and private-property owners in the basin.”
The commission’s report lets nobody off the hook. It requires public regulatory and permitting agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the TRPA to streamline their codes, waive overlapping regulatory requirements and work cooperatively to ensure the basin’s safety.
Recommendation No. 43 sets its sights on the TRPA: “The TRPA must continue to make the avoidance of catastrophic fire its number one priority and should be aggressive in facilitating, approving and permitting projects by land managers and property owners to remove fuels from the forests and to implement forest restoration plans for the purpose of creating more fire-resilient forests with the Tahoe Basin.”
Also emerging from the commission’s eight month’s work is the “Multi-Jurisdictional Fuel Reduction and Wildlife Prevention Strategy,” or “10-Year Plan.”
According to the report, the document was developed under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and in cooperation with 17 other fire and land-management agencies.
The document addresses coordination of fire protection services – an issue that surfaced during and after the Angora fire. According to the report, the purpose of the 10-Year Plan is to “comprehensively combine in a single document all of the existing wildlife protection plans that have been developed within the basin. It provides a single framework for these agencies to identify priority areas and a strategy to collaborate on implementing fuels reduction projects to accomplish those priorities.”
The success or failure of the 10-Year Plan and other commission recommendations depends on the agencies’ ability to reconcile their differences and work together. Commission meetings with a variety of public officials over the past eight months have begun the process, and that’s welcome news.
Sustained progress, of course, will be harder to attain. It’s one thing to come up with a plan, quite another to make it happen. But that’s what the public expects and deserves.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons should make every effort to support the commission’s recommendations. It will require more than rhetoric.
As usual, financing is critical and challenges monumental. With the country in a recession and both states’ budgets in nose dives, it’s up to our leaders to figure out how to implement funding strategies the commission has outlined.
We’ll keep a close eye on the process as it moves forward.