We do not want South Lake Tahoe to burn (Opinion)

David Jinkens
Guest column

Thank you Tahoe Tribune for beginning a much-needed community conversation on the efforts of the California Tahoe Conservancy “to reduce fire danger.” A conversation is long overdue and needed.

As the article discusses, the CTC owns a vast number of lands in the Tahoe Basin because of purchases over many years for the noble purpose of preserving open space.

My friend and past CTC Executive Director Dennis Machida, was proactive in the early years of the Conservancy’s history of purchasing properties almost anywhere whenever they became available.

This land purchase practice by CTC did create a great deal of open space in the city limits and elsewhere, but the lots are now not being maintained in a fire safe manner. A vast amount of CTC parcels are located within the city limits of South Lake Tahoe (along with other USFS lands), and many of these parcels are located within existing and developed residential areas. A visual inspection of the properties will reveal in most cases that they are poorly maintained, overgrown with flammable fuels, and pose a serious safety hazard during normal times but especially “now” in dry, hot weather with drought conditions.

I am reminded that Fire Chief Meston reported to the City Council and community before he retired that the city of South Lake Tahoe is less prepared for fire than the Town of Paradise was before it burned. This courageous pronouncement by a seasoned fire professional should have been a call to action by city officials, the CTC, the state, and federal government that action was needed immediately to reduce the risk to our people, our environment, and our built community.

While CTC officials claim in the article that they are working to reduce the fire (and they may be doing so in certain instances), their approach to this danger is not responsible and is not enough. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, state government leaders have not directed CTC to remove the danger on their lands in a comprehensive and timely manner.

City elected and appointed officials have not pressed the issue hard enough with the state and the Conservancy Governing Board. From conversations I and others have had with city officials over the years, they want to get along with these agency officials and get incremental improvements rather than taking direct action to see that the risk of catastrophic fire on these public lands is dramatically reduced.

As I have said many times, getting along is fine if the job gets done. Holding CTC accountable for clearing the debris on the lots in the city limits they own is not taking place, and this inaction places all of us in imminent danger.

What is needed you ask? The CTC must be compelled by city leaders and managers to annually inspect and evaluate the safety of all parcels of land they own in the city limits. They must do so in conjunction with city professional fire inspectors or hired private sector fire inspectors. Those parcels found to have undergrowth that poses a fire danger must have the danger removed on an urgency basis. The cleanup of fuel on these parcels must be done with the approval of city fire officials or their contracted private fire professionals.

Should CTC not take action to remove dangerous fuel from the floor of these properties in a timely manner, city government should proceed to take all action legally available to them to compel such action. Dangerous fuel abundant CTC parcels must be remediated when found, not whenever CTC officials feel like doing so. We do not need excuses for inaction. We need action.

I and others have tried very hard to discuss this matter with city and CTC leaders in an open forum at the City Council or discuss the matter at the CTC Governing Board. This opportunity has not been afforded to us.

I and many others went through the Angora Fire. We see what is happening now with the Tamarack and Dixie fires, and we want the fire risk on public lands in the city limits substantially reduced so that we don’t experience a human and environmental disaster in our city. We who want immediate and comprehensive action want to protect our community, Lake Tahoe, our wildlife, our environment, and our forest from destruction.

I worry and fear the danger of catastrophic fire. I want our local government and state officials to take the steps on an urgent basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire on state lands (and USFS lands). We want and need their help and support. It is time to be “proactive.”

We depend on city government leaders to be the community’s advocates to protect us. This is the job they signed up for when they became public officials. We need to insist that they do so.

David Jinkens is a South Lake Tahoe resident and former city manager for the city South Lake Tahoe.

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