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League to Save Lake Tahoe has long supported fire prevention efforts

Rochelle Nason

This is a difficult time for our community. So many have experienced the profound hurt of losing a home, a beloved pet, or memorabilia and treasured possessions. Our elderly and those with impaired respiratory systems are still suffering from the effects of smoke. The watershed of Lake Tahoe has been severely damaged.

We at the League to Save Lake Tahoe feel deeply connected to all who love Lake Tahoe, and are concerned for the well-being of everyone who lives or visits here. Our hearts go out to those affected by the fire; most of our staff are South Lake Tahoe residents and have been personally affected by the wildfire. Our profound gratitude goes to those who fought it, and our appreciation goes to all engaged in the effort to handle and recover from the emergency.

Most of our community is pulling together in a remarkable way. But some are focused on blame and recrimination. They accuse the League and other conservationists, as “tree-huggers,” of slowing the pace of fire prevention efforts. But the reality is just the opposite.

For more than 10 years, there has been minimal disagreement over what needs to be done to reduce fire risk on federal lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and no forest management plan has been challenged by conservationists in that time. Up until 1997, there had been serious conflict over this issue. The Forest Service sought to implement self-financed timber harvest projects deep in the forest, far from populated areas, with the rationale that although such timber harvests would increase fire danger in the short run by leaving behind slash and ladder fuels, over the long term they would decrease the risk of “mega-wildfires” (those involving hundreds of thousands of acres).

The League and other conservationists contended that creation of shaded fuel breaks near communities, and the implementation of defensible space within them, should be higher priorities, as fires close to communities were the most likely to occur and the most likely to cause serious harm. We also argued that when projects deeper in the forest were conducted, they should be oriented toward complete ecosystem restoration and the removal of young dead and dying ladder fuels for immediate risk reduction. We advocated that the larger and older green trees, targeted for harvesting by the Forest Service, be left in place for a more permanent solution to the problem of unhealthy forests.

By 1997, there was broad agreement that indeed, fuel breaks near communities should be prioritized. Unfortunately, there was no way for such a strategy to be self-financed and no mechanism for paying for fuels reduction at the level required. So all of us concerned about wildfire risk were pleased when, as a result of the 1997 Presidential Forum organized by Sen. Harry Reid, the federal government committed itself to finding funding for the TRPA’s Environmental Improvement Program (EIP), including the implementation of tens of thousand of acres of fuel breaks.

For several years before the 1997 Forum, and up through the present day, the League to Save Lake Tahoe has quietly spearheaded the community effort to obtain EIP funding. Working with local business interests, including Heavenly, the Gaming Alliance, and small business representatives, through the Tahoe Transportation and Water Quality Coalition, we fought to keep the issue of Tahoe and its needs on the forefront of priorities for policy makers who participated in the Forum.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein subsequently succeeded in having EIP funding authorized through the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. She and Sen. Reid maintained a flow of annual appropriations for such work until Sen. John Ensign inserted the Tahoe Amendment into the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act in 2003, assuring funding from the sales of federal land in Nevada.

Forest Service officials now say that the Angora fire would have been far worse without the implementation of fuel breaks in the area where the fire began and alongside threatened communities. As sad as we are to see the residential areas that were devastated by fire, we should find some solace that fuel breaks prevented the fire from moving into areas that otherwise would have been vulnerable.

And what about areas where fire isn’t controlled and begins consuming homes, despite the presence of fuel breaks and the best efforts of firefighters, as occurred in the Angora fire? With firefighters doing all that they can, the survival of a home depends largely on its construction, its defensible space, and unfortunately a certain degree of luck. Back in the early 1990s, when the Forest Health Consensus Group was formed, the League tried to initiate a similar basin-wide group to build consensus around defensible space. This is an area we hope will receive far more focus now.

Community fire prevention is an area where funding is desperately needed. In the community of Incline Village, which has decided to invest heavily in wildfire prevention, the defensible space around homes is evident, while in much of South Lake Tahoe the vulnerability of homes is obvious. Our fire departments need to be adequately funded to assure the personnel and technology levels they need to advance fire prevention by assisting the willing and pressuring the reluctant. Financial assistance for low-income property owners to do their work should be considered.

We cannot expect the federal government, which must protect its own land, nor the states, which have responsibilities to all their communities, to take this on alone. At the 2004 Wildfire Prevention Forum hosted by Sen. Feinstein, the League proposed a parcel fee of the kind that has been adopted in other communities to pay for fire prevention, and we hope that Lake Tahoe’s communities will now give this serious consideration.

But at least, moving forward, we know that if we work together effectively, we have the ability to reduce risk and to Keep Tahoe Safe and Blue.

– Rochelle Nason is executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.


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