Tahoe fire yields lessons

There's agreement on the need to thin forests in places like Tahoe. As of Wednesday 55 percent of the Angora fire has been contained and 229 homes, valued at $141 million, have been destroyed.

The wildfire scorched half the homes on Gary Lefler's street. The others, it left alone.

Why his home was spared he couldn't say. The wind may have veered slightly just moments after he fled the onrushing flames. Or maybe, he says, it helped that the National Forest Service had recently piled and burned the dead wood lying behind his property.

"On the other end of my street that got wiped out, they still had heaped piles [of forest debris] that they hadn't gotten to for at least five or six years," says Mr. Lefler. Residents of South Lake Tahoe, he says, are upset. "They blame the Forest Service for not doing its job."

Both generosity and recrimination are evident in this community as it deals with the worst wildfire here in a century. So far 229 homes, valued at $141 million, have been destroyed. Firefighters delivered some good news, too, Wednesday, announcing they had 55 percent of the fire contained.

Heaps of dry kindling cluttering public and private lands have intensified the fire – along with high winds and a long drought. Why the forest cleanup didn't move faster boils down to a lack of funds and strains between regulators, residents, and public land stewards – issues familiar to the growing mountain West.

There's general agreement on the need to thin forests in places like Tahoe, given years of fire suppression and housing development.

"Any manager would have to know that they needed to deal with the fuels, and to my knowledge there's been very little underburning – prescribed burning – in that [area] for a number of years," says Rich Fairbanks, a 32-year Forest Service veteran who has supervised firefighting throughout the West.

"The science of this is pretty clear," says Mr. Fairbanks, who now works on wildfire management and policy for the Wilderness Society. "It's just a stark fact that if you don't do that for various political reasons, then you're going to have problems."

In the past five years, the Forest Service has stepped up its efforts, logging or burning out 14,512 acres in the Tahoe Basin, roughly 20 percent of what needs to be thinned, says Matt Mathes, spokesman for the agency's Pacific Southwest regional office in Vallejo, Calif.

Even those initial efforts, says Mr. Mathes, saved an estimated 500 homes during the Angora blaze.

The hopscotch pattern taken by the fire partly reflects the mix of private housing and public undeveloped lots in the area. Several residents noted with frustration how they maintained a defensible border around their lots, only to be abutting public lands choked with dangerous fuel.

"Some of the lots are quite overgrown, and we need to go in there and thin them," concedes Mathes. Money was a major sticking point. "Lake Tahoe is the most expensive place in the US Forest Service for [cleaning] and prescribed burning." The pace now can go faster having secured enough money from Congress and federal land sales, he says.

The thinning efforts at Tahoe cost $3,000 an acre, far above the average of $600 to $1,000, says Mathes. The reason: Proximity to private housing requires extra staff during controlled burns, and the terrain often requires removal of trees by helicopter.

"This reminds me of hurricane Katrina where [the government] didn't have the money to build the levee right the first time," says resident Tim Coolbaugh. "But they have the money to replace everyone's house, and then rebuild the levee."

Meanwhile, he and many residents say confusing rules from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) have made it difficult for homeowners to cut down dangerous trees.

"A lot of people didn't seem to know that for a dead tree in your yard you can just remove that," says Julie Regan, TRPA's communications chief. "We have a lot of work to do to clarify our rules ... and we've been working on that." The agency encourages tree removal for fire safety, she says, noting a recent survey found that the majority of local homeowners had not set up state-mandated defensible perimeters.

As the community sorts through future forest cleanup, it's also coming to terms with suspicions that the Angora fire was human-caused. If so, that would make it like most US wildland fires. About five times as many fires are caused by human activity as are linked to lightning (80,220 versus 16,165 in 2006), according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

While the ratio has remained about the same in recent years, some experts say the incidence of human-caused fires – accidents and arson – has been increasing faster when viewed over longer periods. "There are just so many more people living and working and roaming in the woods, and every one of them is a potential ignition source," says Timothy Ingalsbee, who fought fires for the US Forest Service and National Park Service.

While the fire's exact cause remains unknown, its effects are obvious. "Thank you, firefighters" signs line the streets. Hotels have offered to shelter evacuees and fire personnel free of charge, refusing government- voucher compensation. Among those who can return to their homes, sympathy for those who cannot return mingles with guilt. "I feel that way already, just knowing that so many of my friends in the area have lost everything," says Lefner.

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