Governors back blue-ribbon fire probe
Associated Press Writer
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) ” Governors of California and Nevada agreed Thursday to form a panel that will determine whether policies to protect Lake Tahoe may have worsened the impact of a wildfire that destroyed 254 homes and other buildings.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons decided in a phone call Thursday to work together on the blue-ribbon commission, said Schwarzenegger’s communications director, Adam Mendelsohn.
In a letter to Schwarzenegger, Gibbons said the two states must determine whether the policies of an environmental agency created in the 1960s to protect lake clarity had inadvertently endangered Lake Tahoe residents.
Gibbons said the bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is vital, but “the property rights and protection of human life is paramount.”
Gibbons added that he didn’t believe that the agency created by both states, Congress and then-President Nixon in 1969, “was ever intended to put the life and well-being of residents of the Lake Tahoe area at risk in order to ensure the scenic beauty of the area.”
California state Sen. Dave Cox, a Fair Oaks Republican whose district includes South Lake Tahoe, first proposed the commission after the Angora fire hit the Tahoe area just before the July 4 holiday.
The TRPA has emerged as a favorite target for those seeking to assign blame for the devastating fire. Many Tahoe residents say the agency overstepped its original mission by adopting strict policies that include fining homeowners thousands of dollars for cutting down trees from their own properties and even putting limits on where residents can rake pine needles.
The TRPA’s executive director, John Singlaub, says he’s been shocked by the public backlash. He says the agency’s board has made fire safety a priority, including allowing homeowners to increase defensible space and reduce the threat of a catastrophic fire.
On Tuesday, Jeff Cowen, community liaison for the TRPA, said the agency fully supports and expects a comprehensive look at fire management in the Tahoe basin following last month’s blaze.
“We recognize from the backlash in the community that there’s a disconnect between our policies and the reality on the ground,” Cowen said.
Also Thursday, Schwarzenegger’s office announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration declared El Dorado County, where the fire occurred, a disaster area.
This disaster declaration makes low income fire victims eligible for loans of up to $200,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed homes. It also makes homeowners and renters eligible for up to $40,000 in loans.
Businesses and private nonprofit organizations may also borrow up to $1.5 million under the declaration to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets.
California officials on Thursday also announced the arrests of five unlicensed adjusters and contractors they said were preying on Lake Tahoe fire victims.
The five have no licenses or workers’ compensation insurance, but were caught in a sting operation trying to win $500 contracts to begin repairing a damaged home.
“This wasn’t your buddy ‘Tom’ who came in from down the street to be a good neighbor, these individuals were posing as legitimate contractors,” said Jason Kimbrough, spokesman for California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. “It’s not just a technical violation, it opens victims up to enormous financial liability and victimizes them twice, really.”
Working without a business license is usually a misdemeanor, but the crime is a felony in disaster areas. The El Dorado County district attorney’s office says it will prosecute the cases.
Associated Press Writer Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento contributed to this report.