‘Zero tolerance’ | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘Zero tolerance’

Charles Sizemore
Trevor Clark / Tribune file photo / Outdoor smoking will be prohibited in some cases due to the high fire danger in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Tahoe residents and visitors take note: No fireworks, no campfires and, to a large extent, no outdoor smoking will be allowed this week over the Fourth of July holiday.

And police and fire officials will be vigilant in looking for offenders, who may face fines and possible arrest.

This week’s July 4 festivities will bring an estimated 100,000 tourists to the South Lake Tahoe area, and with them comes the worry that people from out of town won’t be sensitive to the hazardous burning conditions in the Lake Tahoe Basin — some of the worst in recent memory due to the driest winter in nearly three generations.

After the Angora fire, which consumed 3,100 acres and 254 homes in the past week, South Lake Tahoe residents and fire officials alike are acutely aware of the danger and tragedy that a fire can wreak. Fire restrictions were tightened on Friday and will last through the remainder of fire season.

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One of the main concerns of fire officials in the coming week is that pastime so closely tied to July 4 — fireworks.

According to local fire officials, each year South Lake Tahoe experiences several small nuisance fires due to the use of fireworks. This year, however, offers a very different situation, according to Ray Zachau, fire marshal and division chief of the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department.

“This year, with the burning conditions that exist we’re not going to have a nuisance fire, most likely we’re going to have a big fire,” Zachau said.

All fireworks in the Lake Tahoe Basin are illegal. The only fireworks that are going to be permitted are the fireworks over the lake put on by the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority for the July 4 Lights on the Lake.

Not all fireworks are created equal. In California, the penalties for illegal fireworks depend on the weight — or the grains — of powder contained in the firework, and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. When you get over 50 grains of powder in a firework it becomes an illegal explosive rather than a dangerous firework. Using a dangerous firework is a misdemeanor penalty, whereas illegal explosives can be a felony. “Anything that goes ‘bang,’ basically, is a dangerous firework,” Zachau said.

For those buying the fireworks found in the aisles of grocery stores, the penalty won’t be a misdemeanor, but you will find yourself facing a civil infraction, much like getting a speeding ticket, for using them in the Tahoe Basin. And depending on what local judge or court commissioner you end up in front of, according to Zachau, the fines can be hefty. “Especially over in California – judges take fireworks quite seriously,” Zachau said.

The basin is currently under Red Flag fire conditions, which should persist at least through today, and firework use over the coming week is being considered an incredible threat by fire officials. “Even a discarded cigarette can start a fire at this point,” Zachau said.

On June 29, the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit issued fire restrictions for the area that are in effect through the end of the 2007 fire season. Along with the use of fireworks, other activities are prohibited, such as the building of any fire outside of fire rings provided in approved recreation sites, and smoking – except inside a vehicle or building, or while stopped and within an area of at least three feet in diameter that is free of flammable material.

The South Lake Tahoe Fire Department will be working in conjunction with the South Lake Tahoe police over the July 4 holiday to stop, and if necessary arrest, people for using fireworks.

“The bottom line is that it’s against the law,” said Leona Allen, communications supervisor for the South Lake Tahoe police and fire dispatch. “Knowing the sensitivity to fire in this community right now, people who possess fireworks might get arrested.” Whether to issue a warning, citation or make an arrest will be up to the officer(s) at the scene.

Allen said in a telephone interview that there has been a sharp increase in South Lake Tahoe residents reporting other residents for fire violations, such as flicking cigarettes off of balconies, out of cars and for illegal burns.

There will be an increased presence of both police and fire officials in the Tahoe Basin area during the coming week to help curb the threat of fires started by negligence, and so that if in fact there is a fire caused by fireworks, or any other negligent use of fire, they can execute a swift response.

“We are going to exercise absolute zero tolerance on people and fireworks,” Zachau said.

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