Time for innovative thinking on fire safety
As a 12-year resident of South Lake Tahoe, a full-time firefighter, an outdoor enthusiast and someone with a degree in environmental studies I feel compelled to finally write some thoughts regarding this summer’s catastrophic Angora fire.
Throughout the past several years, I have been mountain biking the trails through the burn area, road biking North Upper Truckee, and back-country skiing the peaks along this ridgeline. The first house my wife and I lived in after being married, which we almost bought, used to be on Mule Deer Circle. We have former neighbors, co-workers and friends who lost everything. The day care that my son attended this past year sits relatively unscathed, although six houses surrounding it are now gone.
Despite the angry criticisms directed at environmental agencies, let us not forget that the cause of this fire was an abandoned campfire. The wind, fuels and topography were in alignment, culminating in a fire that didn’t discriminate and easily overwhelmed initial firefighting resources. Despite the so-called experts we have been reading about, no super tanker, locally based helicopter, landscaped yards, or remote sensors could have prevented the cataclysmic chain of events that transpired that day. A good friend who is a captain with a Bay Area fire department and seasonal resident of Lake Tahoe responded as a volunteer with a local fire agency in the initial hour of the fire. His comment to me was “John, I saw fire behavior that day that I never want to see again.”
For years, I have watched as the forests behind North Upper Truckee and above Mule Deer were thinned and burned in an attempt to create a healthier forest. For the past decade the Forest Service, in cooperation with all our local agencies, has worked diligently in an attempt to not only create healthier forests but also reduce fire danger and streamline the process for private property owners. This despite their lack of control over state-mandated air quality standards which limit burn days; repeated letters to the editor every fall from disgruntled residents; and an administration in Washington, D.C., that would rather subsidize logging in remote areas where the profits far exceed those that reduce fire dangers in the urban interface.
At the same time, and to this day, I am constantly amazed at the lack of defensible space within these neighborhoods. Real estate agents continue to market houses with inadequate defensible space and houses are continually built with less-than-ideal fire protective qualities. Meanwhile property managers of long-term and vacation rentals continue to ignore common sense principles of defensible space. These aren’t new concepts. Over seven years ago, I conducted defensible space inspections in the Fallen Leaf area, and for several years my wife helped organize Tahoe Forest Stewardship Days.
Days before the fire, my neighbors had a free defensible space inspection of their property with numerous trees marked for removal.
Tahoe is unique in that our forests are relatively young — a result of clear-cutting the majority of the basin for the Comstock silver mines that has left us with a forest severely lacking in biological diversity and more susceptible to drought and insect infestations. But, like the rest of the West, a century of fire suppression combined with continued urban development of the wildland interface has resulted in an increasing catastrophic fire risk. Let us not forget, we chose to live in a forest and must accept the potential risks that accompany it, much like those living along a major fault line or hurricane storm track.
Since the fire, truly incredible things have happened with the enormous amount of generosity that has transpired. The cleanup effort has progressed incredibly fast, re-vegetation and rehabilitation efforts are underway and people are already attempting to rebuild while looking toward a positive future. Can more be done? Without a doubt. Everyone in this community must make a concerted effort to be a part of the solution and work toward a sensible and productive process with support of the agencies that govern Tahoe.
It is time for innovative thinking. Maybe forest health becomes better integrated into how we build new trails or take on new utility projects. Maybe local fire agencies are funded appropriately and empowered to enforce higher defensible space standards. Maybe collaboration with residents and agencies becomes more commonplace. There are many good ideas now being discussed, but now is not the time to abandon agency rules that keep us from looking like Orange County, Riverside or Roseville.
– John Drum lives in South Lake Tahoe.