Let’s unite around solutions
The Chinese have two symbols for crisis. One means danger, the other means opportunity. In danger, there is fear, division, acrimony, problems, finger-pointing and blame. Contained in opportunity are community, unity, solutions.
In the case of the crisis inflicted upon our community by the Angora fire, the heart of Tahoe has been in action. Countless people have made of the tragedy an opportunity to lend a helping hand to their friends and neighbors, creating a quilt of caring and support that has touched us all.
But there has been another reaction to the fire as well. At its worst, blame and anger has fomented into a lynch mob mentality – often based upon misinformation, rumors and half-truths. This not only divides the community, but also threatens to do more long-term harm than good.
So where do we go from here?
There has been talk of the need to make forest management decisions based upon “real science.” But there’s a bit of real science that has been glaringly omitted from the conversation – global climate change. A study published last year in the journal Science (www.sciencemag.org) determined that the average number of wildfires in the West was four times greater from 1987 to 2003 than from 1970 to 1986, with the total area burned six and half times greater. The length of the wildfire season has increased by 78 days. The largest increase in wildfire frequency was found around 7000 feet in elevation (Angora Ridge ranges from 6,360 to 7,440 feet in elevation).
The primary culprits are rising temperatures, less snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt, leading to drier conditions for longer periods of the year. Snowpack was 30 percent of normal in the Sierra Nevada last winter.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of leading climate scientists worldwide, recently issued a comprehensive report, including this finding: “Warming in western (U.S.) mountains is projected to cause decreased snowpack, and reduced summer flows. … Disturbances from pests, diseases and fire are projected to have increasing impacts on forests, with an extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned.”
As a community dependent upon snow, and at increasing risk of wildfire, all Tahoe agencies must step up efforts to be part of the global warming solution, and to plan for its effects. Tahoe is already far behind places like Aspen, Colo., which has undertaken a comprehensive program to reduce its carbon emissions, and hired staff to implement their action plan (www.canaryinitative.com).
A second area that deserves more attention is the amount and type of development that TRPA permits in areas with high fire risk. Each time a time share complex or another monster vacation rental is permitted in our forest environment, the risk of fire increases. The extent to which new development increases fire risk needs to be carefully considered in TRPA’s new regional plan.
A third solution should address the gap between fire-safe programs provided by Tahoe agencies and public awareness. The agencies could combine forces for an ambitious neighborhood by neighborhood outreach program, with a very clear set of instructions on how to implement both defensible space and BMP programs, including resources available to get the job done.
Fourth, all Tahoe area firefighters should be given an immediate pay raise, to bring their salaries closer to what they deserve, and as tangible gratitude for a job well done.
We stand at a moment when we can respond to the fire crisis by uniting as a community for the best possible solutions, or we can sit back and attack “them” for causing the problem. I propose we agree to blame the wind, climate change, and careless campers for the blaze, and get busy with the hard work of figuring out how we can live more safely amidst the forest, in a way that leaves this incredible place in better condition for now and future generations. A lot more good will be accomplished, and an even stronger community will be created along the way.
– John Friedrich lives in South Lake Tahoe.