Fire has long been a huge concern in Tahoe. The management of the forest surrounding Tahoe seems to always be an area of contention, and a lot of resources are used in that management every year. When I started grad school last August, one of the first things we did as a group was attend the Tahoe Summit at Sand Harbor where it was announced that about $300 million would be doled out by the federal government for fire prevention and suppression. Attending that gathering put fire in our collective minds. Several people even based their entire projects on how to properly manage the forest and keep a catastrophic fire from taking place—a fire just like the Angora Fire now burning in South Lake Tahoe.
I spent some time with a firefighter from Incline Village in the fall. I was doing a biography project on someone who had a particular connection to the lake, and my assignment was a firefighter. We talked about the beauty of the lake, we talked about management issues, and we talked about her personal feelings on forest management. One thing Incline Village does, as a community, is allocate money to prevent fire. They hire hand crews and clear underbrush around the Incline neighborhoods. From there they do prescribed burns to keep the ground clear of the ladder fuels that seem to have contributed a great deal in the Angora Fire.
Historically (meaning, before management of the forest began), Tahoe was constantly burning in one part or another. Very small fires would roam through the area and take out the undergrowth and smaller trees. This kept the forest relatively thin (like about 1/3 or 1/4 of the trees that you see there now) and prevented a humongous fire from even being able to start. When modern management took over (and regulations on tree thinning), the focus had to be on suppression of fire. No longer was it possible to have small fires constantly burning throughout the basin because there were homes to protect.
One problem I saw was that even with the amount that Incline does proactively, they are woefully underfunded for such undertakings. They are able to cover nowhere near what they should have to to ensure a major fire doesn’t happen. On a burn I attended, I was told that the area was one that historically burned every ten years. The lot next to the one burning that day had been burned in 1997. That was nine years prior. They weren’t on schedule with how nature would have done it, they were way behind how nature would have done it. So despite their best efforts, there was no way they could keep up.
I mentioned that a couple of people dedicated their projects to fire. One was Sevil Omer who is now covering the fire for the RGJ. Sevil set up a deliberation online to get government officials and citizens to talk about management of fire issues in Tahoe. Sevil did everything she could to get people to participate. On the stakeholder side, she used personal contacts to bring people in and the conversation at least took place. It was filled with official-sounding statements, however, and was more formal than was expected. On the side where citizens were supposed to participate, nobody showed up. Not a single person posted a comment about how they wanted to see the forest managed. What’s interesting about it is that they had the ear of U.S. Forest Service officials, TRPA officials, and other local agencies. The opportunity was there for stating how the forest should look and be maintained. Now, I have no idea if those officials would have done any of what citizens wanted, but this was an opportunity that does not come along often, yet nobody took advantage.
Another project that would be a great starting point for anyone interested in Tahoe fire issues was done by Pam Higgins. She put together Tahoe Fire, which attempted to look at all the options that are available with the $300 million allocated by the federal government.
Blame is something that’s easily cast about in cases such as this fire. I have no idea who is to blame. Even if the deliberation had been a resounding success there would have been no time to implement and change whatever things had come out of it. One thing is for sure, though: it’s an issue the entire Tahoe community needs to own. This should serve as a wakeup call to residents. No longer can decisions rest entirely on the shoulders of government officials. The community needs to participate, offer input, and demand that they are a part of the decisions that are made regarding the forest surrounding their homes. Without doing so, it will be really easy to cast blame upon everyone else, when issues such as this surely belong on the community’s radar—not just the radar of an agency based in Washington, D.C.
Ongoing coverage is being featured on OurTahoe.org as part of our mission there. We are featuring news stories, blog entries, and photos found on Flickr that are related to the fire. If you have posted something that we have not caught, please email me and I’ll do what I can to get it up there.