Governors get final Tahoe fire report

Emergency declarations for five counties ringing Lake Tahoe were signed Tuesday by California and Nevada governors to help speed fire-protection efforts in the scenic mountain resort area hit by a catastrophic blaze last summer.

The declarations were among more than 70 recommendations by a special panel formed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons after the Angora Fire destroyed 254 homes and caused $140 million in property damage in South Lake Tahoe.

"We will not rest until this natural crown jewel is as safe as it is beautiful," Schwarzenegger said prior to the signings that affect California's El Dorado and Placer counties and Nevada's Carson City, Douglas and Washoe counties.

"Many of these recommendations can be implemented swiftly, and I hope that everyone with the power to make these changes does so quickly," Gibbons said, referring to the California-Nevada Basin Fire Commission's report.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who joined the governors, commission members and firefighters at the conference, said that saving Lake Tahoe "is going to be a continuing work in progress. One thing is clear, it's not going to be done in 10 years, it will be ongoing."

The fire commission wants the state and federal governments to free up money quickly, primarily to cut thick stands of trees. Many of its recommendations are intended to resolve the bureaucratic infighting among overlapping agencies that has hampered fire-prevention efforts for years.

The report also recommended higher taxes for property owners, requiring home owners to replace wood shingles and upgrading the Tahoe basin's water systems, which together could cost more than $300 million over 20 years.

The commission said thinning overgrown forests around communities should be completed within five years and within a decade throughout the entire Tahoe basin.

The Angora Fire exposed long-standing rivalries between the local, state, federal and regional agencies that are charged with protecting Tahoe's environment or promoting fire protection.

A recent report by The Associated Press exposed numerous examples of bureaucratic backbiting that delayed tree clearing throughout the basin, sometimes for years. More than 4,000 pages of internal documents from numerous agencies illustrated a dysfunctional planning and fire-prevention process.

The commission's report focused on two agencies at the core of the criticism: the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and California's Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. Both agencies have tended to make fire protection secondary to environmental protection, in particular trying to maintain the lake's clarity.

They now must recognize that in just a matter of days a wildfire can undo years of environmental progress, sending black ash and barren soil streaming into the lake, the commission said.

It recommended the Lahontan water board and the regional planning agency update their policies to emphasize tree clearing, "with the priority given to protection of life, property and the environment, in that order."

The commission's report also says the various agencies must set aside their often conflicting goals and begin cooperating.

Among the commission's recommendations:

" The process to obtain tree-cutting permits must be streamlined.

" Expensive improvements must be undertaken, such as increasing the capacity of the basin's water systems to better fight fires, which would cost more than $100 million and likely take 20 years.

" Homeowners should be required to replace flammable wooden or shake-shingle roofs, which should be done within 10 years.

" Local governments should consider taxing property owners in the basin to pay for fire-prevention programs.


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