Fire commission explores emergency declaration | SierraSun.com

Fire commission explores emergency declaration

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Dan Thrift/Sun News Service

The California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission intends to declare an emergency in the Tahoe Basin to hasten fuel reduction projects and open doors to state and federal funding.

The bi-state commission made their intent official Friday, authorizing the commission’s co-chairs Kate Dargan and Sig Rogich to form a committee to discuss the matter further with legal counsel and staff.

Though the commission easily approved the measure, many commissioners expressed the need to clarify several components to the declaration, including the actual threat posed to the Tahoe basin, funding that should be pursued and future projects that will bring solutions.

Commissioner Jim Pena was the lone “no” vote against the motion.

“That motion is only for the purpose of moving forward,” Rogich said at the meeting. “This simply tells the world that we view this as an emergency, with more specifics to follow.”

Pena asked fellow commissioners to clarify on what premises the emergency was based on.

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The argument would be based off the threat wildfire poses to Tahoe’s primary natural resource, water clarity, Dargan said.

At the Tahoe Forum in August, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein noted that Tahoe was one of two examples of lake clarity in the world, with the other being Lake Baikal in Russia, Dargan continued.

Other commissioners said they saw an impending threat posed against lives and communities in the basin.

“I think the emergency here is the extreme nature of fire here, and the values at risk,” said Commissioner John Pickett. “And the values at risk are people … if that’s not an emergency, I don’t know what is.”

In a presentation given to the commission, Dave Zocchetti, general counsel with the California Office of Emergency Services, said state and local emergency proclamations often reflect an imminent disaster. In such cases, the declaration would heighten the need for prevention measures.

“The declaration and proclamation process is really driven by threat, or potential threat,” Zocchetti said.

Emergency proclamations at a federal level tend to be in response to an emergency, rather than to avoid the disaster.

Once approved, a declaration has the capacity to waive rules and regulations that may hinder the ability to cope with the specified threat, Zocchetti said. It also has the potential to open doors to funding sources. But funding is not always a guarantee, he said.

In the case of an emergency declaration in San Bernardino county, which was declared in response to the fire threat posed by thousands of dead trees killed by bark beetles, funding was received from Congress.

Commissioner Julie Motamedi said she did not want to recommend a gubernatorial proclamation, which would heighten expectations, without a better understanding of funding.

Rogich recommended the commission pursue money from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, which funds environmental projects in Nevada from the sale of public lands in Clark County.

The fund is highly competitive between agencies at Lake Tahoe and in Nevada.

Commissioner Allen Biaggi suggested an endowment that would provide funds more stable and long-term than the land management act.

Rogich said the emergency proclamation was the only way to receive additional funding sources, but the declaration would have to provide a precise budget to ensure the commission receives the appropriate amount of funds.

Commissioner Bob Davidson said federal interest, without exception, lies in cost-effective solutions to the problem at hand, which in this case would mean cost-effective fuel reduction methods.

“We have to justify our request,” Davidson said. “And cost-effectiveness is very high on these people’s minds over there.”

Pena said he needed clarification on how they plan to address this emergency in relation to time.

“This is an issue that has to be dealt across the landscape, if we’re going to truly protect the community,” Pena said.

The commission will be held accountable to the declaration’s subsequent progress in fuel reduction, Pena noted.

A recently-released interagency wildfire prevention strategy outlines fuel reduction strategies over the next 10 years.

Rogich said he doesn’t view fuel reduction as a 10-year plan.

“I view this as a two- or three-year plan because I don’t think we have 10 years,” Rogich said.