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A perfect recipe for a blaze

Despite efforts to thin overgrowth, the Angora fire had plenty of fuel. Strong wind and low humidity whipped it into a 'nightmare.'

July 01, 2007|Bettina Boxall And Julie Cart | Times Staff Writers

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — No one could claim surprise last week when tall flames raged across more than 3,000 acres and consumed 254 homes.

The ingredients for a devastating wildfire have long been in place in the Tahoe Basin, one of the West's most popular forest playgrounds, where 32,000 houses are tucked into an overgrown forest of pine and fir and 3 million visitors a year come to relax on the shores of one of the deepest and clearest lakes in the world.

Heavy logging in the 1800s followed by dense regrowth and a century of fire suppression thwarted the basin's natural wildfire cycle and helped turn the area into a tinderbox.

Efforts to reduce the fire hazard, underway for more than a decade, were slowed by an early shortage of funding and some public resistance to extensive tree cutting.

The Angora fire has taught emergency planners a grim lesson. Even textbook precautions can go up in flames, if the fire is hot enough and the winds are strong.

"This fire was the absolute worse-case nightmare we feared," said Julie Regan, communications and legislative affairs chief for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a powerful bi-state agency that became a magnet for blame last week as irate residents insisted that the organization's strict environmental regulations had interfered with forest thinning that could have protected their homes.

Although some local officials said the agency's erosion control requirements have made it harder to get approval for thinning, agency rules did not stop thinning on public lands bordering the burned subdivision.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the land in the basin, had thinned some 3,000 acres in and around the burned area during the last eight years, including a just-completed project.

"In this particular situation, probably not a whole lot of anything would have stopped this fire from devastating the small subdivision it burned," said Dave Marlow, the vegetation, fire and fuels manager for the U.S. Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The thinning, which removes dense brush and tree growth, slowed the flames but could not halt them as they were driven into treetops by dry, strong winds more characteristic of Southern California than of the alpine slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

The fire broke out June 24 in 30-mph gusts at the south end of the lake after two days of 5% humidity. The Forest Service said Friday evening that a campfire had caused the blaze.

The thinning projects, Marlow said, "are designed for average weather and fire conditions, and when this fire broke out we had extreme fire weather." Still, he added, the thinning work "really helped in terms of keeping losses down. It could have been worse."

At Tahoe, conditions that have primed much of the Sierra range for major wildfires are writ large.

In the mid-1800s, two-thirds of the basin was stripped of most of its trees as loggers felled timber for the nearby Comstock Lode mines. When the forest grew back in the 20th century, it rose from the slopes thick and roughly the same age and height -- perfect food for a fire.

In the early 1900s, the federal government adopted an anti-fire policy on public lands throughout the country, snuffing out forest blazes as fast as it could.

For nearly a century, that approach blocked the natural cycle of frequent low-intensity fires that in the past had helped clean out dense young growth in the basin.

Adding to the flammable mix were tens of thousands of homes built amid the trees after World War II.

Today, steep hillside neighborhoods are filled with alpine-style houses with wood shake roofing, wood decks, yards covered with wood chips or pine needles, all surrounded by big trees. Hotels and business adopt a log-cabin look.

"The reality is that there has been unanimity for more than a decade now for the need for thinning," said Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a local environmental group.

But it was slow getting started. About 21,000 acres of federal, private and state land have been thinned in the basin in the last decade, according to Regan. But 67,000 more acres need treatment.

Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said that in the last 10 years, not a single environmental appeal or lawsuit was filed against Forest Service thinning projects in the basin, but not everyone was thrilled to see chain saws in action.

"The people of Lake Tahoe did not move there to have a view of a timber-cutting operation," Mathes said. "And the funding was not there."

Further complicating matters is the strict environmental oversight of the regional planning agency, created in 1969 to control development in the basin and stop the runoff and pollution that were robbing the lake of its famed clarity.

Controversial from its inception, the agency has greatly limited growth and not been shy about telling property owners what they can and cannot do on their land.

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