Guest column: Fire protection is an existential issue (opinion)
To most of us who followed the news this past summer, the Camp Fire was a tragedy that unfolded over a week, fought with an army of aircraft and firefighters. The truth, however, is much more dangerous, and our town is much less prepared.
In its first day, the Camp Fire burned 80,000 acres, an area eight times the size of South Lake Tahoe. The fire was first reported at 6:44 a.m. on Nov. 8. The first evacuation order went out 38 minutes later. Only 37 minutes after that, the fire reached the first residential structures.
Within an hour of the evacuation order, the streets had jammed with the cars of some 27,000 people.
In about three hours, 90 percent of the town of Paradise had been destroyed. The first air tankers would not arrive until late that afternoon.
The Angora Fire burned 3,100 acres and came close to decimating our city. In the 12 years since, the risks to our city have only become more severe. Our housing is not up to modern fire codes, with wood shake roofs and dead trees peppered throughout the city. Tree die off, erratic weather swings and a relentless increase in ladder fuels creates a situation for the next Angora Fire to fan out from Baldwin Beach to Edgewood with the same 90 percent decimation.
Angora was a small precursor to a future the Camp Fire has unambiguously demonstrated.
Our community is bordered on three sides by tinder, with only a handful of ways out. We face no choices as to whether or not we will encounter a dangerous fire in our wildland–urban interface. Our only choices are in what preparations we can make now to meet that inevitability.
In any such scenario, our municipal fire department will be among the very first to respond. Ensuring that our fire department is adequately and sustainably funded, maintains experienced staff, and is able to respond quickly, is crucial to ensuring that small fires do not escalate to put our entire city at risk.
Does the City Council know what percentage of houses meet California fire guidelines for fire defensible space? Does the City Council know how long an evacuation would realistically take on a busy holiday weekend? How long would it take if U.S. 50 were blocked? What is the readiness of emergency cell-phone messaging to communicate with the public?
These are not idle questions. Years of tourist-first development, converting homes into hotels, has prioritized heads-in-beds before any planning for emergency responsiveness.
Our permanent population of 21,000 is similar to Paradise, but that is a paper figure. On any given weekend our city is inundated by tourists, as anyone who’s ventured onto the parking lot that is U.S. 50 at the end of a holiday weekend can attest.
Fire and emergency staffing and response planning must account realistically for the actual population, including tourists.
The city must find the means to properly staff Fire Station 2, properly equip that staff, and pay competitive salaries to retain experienced professional firefighters. Before it’s destruction, the town of Paradise spent 36 percent of tax revenue on fire protection. Our city spends 17 percent, which is among the lowest in the state.
Furthermore, the city must consider inconvenient but necessary ordinances relating to defensible spaces on private property, including removal of pine needles and trimming of vegetation and trees.
Responsible governance is a matter of choosing priorities. Among our choices are whether to prioritize spending money to promote ever more tourism and vanity projects, or our fire department. Furthermore, the city should look seriously at implementing a second/vacation home property surtax, similar to how the city of Oakland’s recently implemented vacant property tax, as well as raising the Transient Occupancy Tax, especially on VHRs (San Francisco’s TOT, for example, is 14 percent).
In our era of divisive politics, we often grow numb to hyperbolic rhetoric that equates policy choices to existential threats. But the town of Paradise no longer exists.
In our home, the risk of fire is no hyperbole. It is actually existential.
Scott Robbins is a South Lake Tahoe resident.