Talk surfaces of stationing Calfire in the basin
TRUCKEE — Fire officials are investigating whether state firefighters should be stationed in the Lake Tahoe Basin to add resources to an area traditionally the sole territory of federal and local fire units.
The decision to bring Calfire into the California portion of the basin hinges on whether the move would be cost-effective, said members of the California Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission at a meeting in Tahoe City this month.
Existing policy gives the U.S. Forest Service responsibility over fires that break out in the wildland-urban interface, while local fire districts respond to structure fires and medical calls.
If Calfire assumed a firefighting role in the basin, it would take over direct protection responsibilities on 32,000 acres of private and state park lands on the California side of the lake, as well as respond to any calls, including medical, that the local fire districts and the U.S. Forest Service receive, said Chief Bill Holmes of Calfire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit.
“Calfire, formerly CDF, has never had any fire protection responsibility in the basin,” Holmes said in a phone interview following the meeting. “It’s always been given to the Forest Service.”
After discussing the matter with officials from federal, state and local fire agencies, the commission’s Community Fire Safety Committee said members needed more information before they could justify any decision.
Officials will prepare a report analyzing the existing capacity and success rate of current fire protection services in the basin and compare those findings to the cost associated with establishing a local Calfire presence.
“Tahoe has a pretty good record of suppressing all their fires of 10 acres or less” with the resources currently in place, Holmes said.
In extreme cases such as this summer’s Angora fire, Holmes said it would not have made a difference if Calfire units were located in the Basin. Calfire sent fire engines, dozers, firefighting crews and helicopters from neighboring locations to fight the blaze.
Calfire always responds to emergencies in Tahoe when needed, Holmes said. But response time is delayed during the couple of hours it takes to arrive.
“You’re always going to have your exceptions,” such as the Angora fire, Holmes said. “You can’t base your staffing on the exceptions. And so you have to base your staffing on the other 98 percent of the fires you put out.”
Basing in the basin
Holmes said Calfire has not been based in the Basin since the 1920s after the Cooperative Fire Protection Agreement was enacted.
When the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reassessed its protection areas in the state with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in a 1992 agreement known as the “balancing of acres,” the Tahoe Basin was never discussed because the majority of land was federally owned,
Former Calfire Deputy Director Bill Teie told the fire committee.
When reviewing millions of acres in California, the state’s 32,000 acres in Tahoe were “very small potatoes,” Teie said. Federal land comprises 85 percent of the Basin. State parks and private land make up the remaining 15 percent.
Calfire Director Ruben Grijalva, who sat as chair on the committee, said he would not endorse rearranging existing Calfire resources to supply the Tahoe Basin with additional engines and crews.
Grijalva said he would only support establishing a Calfire presence in Tahoe if new resources were brought in — a venture that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Holmes said.
One engine costs the state $700,000 for staff and operating fees, Holmes said. There would likely be two engines and crews placed in the Basin – one stationed at both the north and south shores.
Calfire operates on a small budget supplied by the state’s general fund, Holmes said.
“In the last 38 years I’ve been with this department, the budget is tighter every year,” Holmes said.
When asked whether there are adequate firefighting resources in the Basin, North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw said, “The answer is probably, maybe.”
Residents within the Tahoe Basin deserve the same level of protection as their neighbors in Placer and El Dorado counties who are serviced by federal, state and local fire agencies, Whitelaw told the committee.
“It doesn’t work having a 10 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.) fire unit in the Basin,” Whitelaw said.
Calfire could provide additional resources to assist with defensible space and medical response, as well as work with local fire districts to protect communities and homes from fires, Whitelaw said.
The local fire districts currently work well with the U.S. Forest Service when it comes to fighting fires, Whitelaw said.
“I have nothing bad to say when (the U.S. Forest Service) is here,” Whitelaw said. “It’s when they’re not here.”
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service said they had adequate resources to meet their responsibilities in the Basin.
Joe Millar, assistant director of the Forest Service’s Northern California Operations, said establishing a Calfire presence in the basin would add another player to the already complicated web of agencies operating there. If there were adequate communication, Millar said he did not foresee any problem.
Truckee is serviced by fire agencies from all three government levels, and the resulting effort “puts out a great product,” Chief Bryce Keller of the Truckee Fire Protection District said at the meeting.
Truckee has three players at the table, and each one has a tremendous strength, Keller said.