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TAHOE FIRE: A CHALLENGING FOE; TREE-CLEARING CONTROVERSY

Crowd aims fury at regional panel

June 26, 2007|Eric Bailey and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The mood of the crowd jammed into the meeting room was angry.

Many had lost their homes to the forest fire that swept through the Sierra Nevada just south of Lake Tahoe.

They said they were angry at bureaucrats and environmentalists who made cutting of trees and clearing of land difficult. There was always too much red tape, they said, and now it was too late.

In all, a crowd of nearly 2,000 people descended on the South Tahoe Middle School auditorium Monday night, wanting to be heard in the face of their losses.

And if there was an object of scorn in the crowd, it was the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a powerful bi-state environmental land use agency charged with managing the resources of the basin.

When a speaker mentioned the agency, the crowd responded with a chorus of boos. "What a joke!" yelled one man.

The wrangling began in earnest over the assignment of blame, including arguments over whether federal and state forest managers had made their tree clearing rules too strict in the face of pressure by environmentalists.

A common sentiment Monday was expressed by Jerry Martin, a bartender at the Horizon Casino Resort, whose house was still standing, although eight others around it had burned to the ground. He said U.S. Forest Service rules regulating the harvesting of dead trees were too stringent for those living next to government land.

"I hate to get political, but environmentalists wouldn't let us cut down the dead trees," he said.

The amount of fuel in the Tahoe Basin has reached critical levels after years of discord among environmentalists and government agencies over how to thin forests and reduce the fire threat. And it has led to predictions of a devastating wildfire because the basin is one of the areas with the most fire starts in the Sierra Nevada.

More than 21,000 acres of Tahoe land have been cleared to guard against wildfires, at a cost of $50 million, but an additional 67,000 acres need to be cleared and thinned.

"It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge," said Julie Regan, a spokeswoman for the regional planning agency. "Once you're finished at one end it's time to start again on the other."

In April, the U.S. Forest Service finally settled on a 10-year plan to thin and burn 38,000 acres of land to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. But the plan had little effect on the homes in the community of Meyers, where most of Sunday's fire damage occurred. Regan said only 462 acres within the Angora fire boundary had been treated for fuel reduction because it was low on the priority list.

Sgt. Don Atkinson of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department said heavy growth in the area, especially manzanita plants, contributed to the danger.

He said fire officials request that underbrush be cleared at least 30 feet from residences.

"Sometimes people do it and sometimes people don't," he said. "There's a lot of residences where manzanita grows right up to the house, and that's unfortunate. It's very flammable and it's got oils and stuff in it that really tend to drive a fire."

But the people at the meeting Monday said that regional planning agency regulations were the source of much of the problem when it came to clearing the land.

A man got up and said, "I've lived here 35 years. Is this going to open TRPA's eyes?" The room erupted into cheers and applause.

Regan said that of the 1,300 parcels in the neighborhood that sustained the most damage, only 274 were new or remodeled -- and therefore more likely to have cleared "defensible space."

"The majority of homes in Lake Tahoe have not completed defensible space," she said.

She also said part of the reason may be that residents don't realize that no permit is necessary to cut down dead trees on private property.

"It's important to relay the message that homeowners can cut a tree down without a permit," she said.

"If they want to cut down trees, all they have to do is call their fire districts," she said.

Lauri Kemper of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board said most people in the basin are reluctant to clear out trees.

"I've lived here for 22 years and folks like their trees," she said. "They like it for the habitat and the beauty they create."

eric.bailey@latimes.com

michael.kennedy@latimes.com

Bailey reported from South Lake Tahoe, Kennedy from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Lee Romney and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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